We need to end “parachute” research which sidelines the work of Africans

A scientist in Kigali. Sam Ngendahimana.

There’s growing condemnation of “parachute research” among the global scientific community.

This refers to the practice of scientists and research groups from the global north conducting research and collecting data in poorer parts of the world, publishing their findings in prestigious journals – and giving little or no credit to their local collaborators.

The respected journal Lancet Global Health recently published an editorial damning the approach.

Immediate reactions were drawn from all over the world. James Smith from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine acknowledged the problem.

But, he cautioned, researchers from developed countries have a role in shaping health discussions through high impact publications.

A group of malnutrition researchers based at the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, weighed in to share their experience.

They’ve established a body, the Childhood Acute Illness and Nutrition Network. It emphasizes north-south collaboration and works to avoid “parachute” research.

More recently, Professor Jimmy Volmink and colleagues expressed concern about equity in collaborations between global health researchers in low-income and middle-income countries and academics in high-income countries.

They noted that these partnerships often result in disproportionate benefits for the northern partners who assume more prominent authorship positions in joint publications.

For the past 15 years my colleagues and I have been doing work that we believe is important in this debate. We are involved in an organization that focuses on partnerships.

We believe that our model of global health partnership and international collaboration is closing the door to parachute researchers and those who pursue a parasitic rather than symbiotic approach to research in and about Africa.

We are not suggesting that researchers from the global north ought to stay out of Africa. Their contributions and the reach they enjoy into high impact journals can help the continent enormously.

The problem arises when local researchers are sidelined and when no capacity building or skills development occurs.

It’s also problematic when data is not shared with local researchers to further their work in communities.

These are some of the lessons we’ve learned in the 15 years since the European & Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP) was established by the European Union.

Setting up a partnership

The partnership was a response to the global health crisis caused by three major poverty-related diseases: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Our scope has increased significantly to include neglected infectious diseases, emerging infections, diarrhoal diseases and lower respiratory tract infections.

Today there are 30 participating states, 16 of which are in Africa. These include Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Gabon, The Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

With a significant investment of €683 million from the European Union, matched by our participating states, this partnership model represents one of equality and inclusiveness. Each participating state is represented in the General Assembly, which governs the organization.

The partnership is in its second phase. Over the past five years EDCTP has invested €447.6 million in 193 grants related broadly to clinical trials and career development have been funded.

What’s important is that 62 per cent of the funding has been allocated to 226 institutions in Africa. This is valuable because more resources are needed to strengthen Africa’s generally weak research infrastructure and technical capacity.

On the career development front, our fellowship recipients must be a resident of, or be willing to relocate to, a sub-Saharan African country.