Getting research into use is a critical factor in achieving outcomes that improve the quality of life of poor people in Africa. Effective research communication is vital to achieve research uptake and measurement of the impact of investment in development research. Researchers are expected to be key communication intermediaries but there is very little institutional support for researchers to reach their readerships. Even well-funded researchers tend to work in relative isolation, which does not build institutional capacity. With effective institutional strategies and permanent capacity in place, universities can utilise research communication to have a significant impact on the stakeholders that influence social and economic policy and practice.
This small-scale study considered the potential of a complementary approach to existing research communication initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); a meso-level strategy to build capacity inside the institution where the researcher is employed, and to establish research communication expertise as a core competency set. It examined whether central capacity could better support researchers, better utilise the externally-funded support given on a project by project basis, enable learning from multiple projects, and make the research outputs of universities more visible, accessible, useable, cost-effective and sustainable.
The need, demand and potential for capacity-building was examined through:
- On-line survey responses from 35 administrators working in the central offices of 30 African universities in 11 countries, together with 23 African researchers.
- Face to face focus groups held in Tanzania, Malawi, Botswana and South Africa involving 55 individuals in 4 universities and 7 DFID research programmes.
- Interviews with 5 international funding bodies with programmes in the field.
- A feedback session at the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS) conference, attended by 35 delegates from 14 countries.
1. Universities are aware that stakeholders want research to be communicated effectively.
2. The donors interviewed reported a high and long-term involvement in institutional capacity-building, and an increasing interest in research communication.
3. There is evidence in universities of a willingness to improve their capabilities.
4. Constraints were also identified. Not all universities have invested in support capacity, and generally it comes from a low base.
1. An intervention to develop SSA universities as key intermediary institutions with organisational capacity in research communication would be timely, address gaps in current provision and would complement current programmes to improve the capacity of individual researchers to get research into use.
2. An intervention should be selective – focussing initially on universities with existing capacity and a suitable research profile.
3. Intervention is required at the strategic level to ensure coordination within and between central functions, and better communication between central offices and academic staff. This will include improved use of the rapidly increasing ICT capacity in universities.
4. Improving and aligning institutional capacity and professional expertise into a functional unit is critical for sustainability, to ensure the necessary visibility and accessibility to academic staff, and to help ensure that long term support is available for researchers not supported by donor programmes, especially the next generation of researchers.
5. Strong demand exists for a specialised multi-disciplinary professional qualification – for accredited courses, delivered in modularised formats to allow for in-service and distance learning modes.
- There is great potential to add value to the DFID Research Communication Uptake portfolio by establishing a special interest learning community in SSA universities.
A number of recommendations are made in the report.
Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), UK; Centre for Research into Evaluation of Science and Technology, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa; Organisational Systems Development, South Africa; 20 pp.