More equitable North/South research partnership

Local research and innovation matter to develop sustainable solutions for health problems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). In the past few years, this has increasingly been recognised. However, such sustainability is only achievable if research funding allows for capacity building and sharing of other benefits from research partnerships. Ultimately, leaving the low income partner in a more empowered position.

Experience suggests that, on occasion, high income country (HIC) institutions insist on a number of preconditions prior to collaborating, which disadvantage lower income partners – for example, the claiming of publication rights, exclusive data ownership, or intellectual property rights by HIC partners. As a result, international research partnerships often leave little behind in terms of capacity.

Health research has not only increased in quantity and geographical distribution, but also in terms of its complexity of study design, multi-centre collaboration and the allocation of intellectual property rights and of other benefits of research to participating institutions and individuals. For this reason, most research institutions, universities and research sponsors in HICs have set up elaborate research contracting departments and services. Such services are set up to maximise the benefit of research to the institution. In many LMICs, such facilities are rare. The necessity for research managers in LMIC institutions to have access to legal resources and capacity to negotiate fair agreements with their funding partners has thus become more important than ever.

The issue of inequitable research partnerships is not new. And is not limited to the health sector. Absent from existing best practice guidance for fair research partnerships is the crucial role that equitable contracts and contract negotiations play in defining the nature of research collaborations, in building the foundations for successful long-term partnerships, and in enhancing the research systems of LMICs.

Without fair research contracts, a major global opportunity is lost for relevant capacity transfer to LMICs. Without adequate legal capacity, could lead to inequitable agreements that disadvantage the LMIC partner. Contractual conditions may allow for only a limited role for the LMIC partner in the academic aspects of the work. For example, restricted rights in authorship of publications and ownership of intellectual property. And little technology transfer or capacity building for the sustainable development of local research and innovation systems. In addition, these partnerships can result in LMIC institutions being financially disadvantaged by entering into contracts that may not cover the true cost of the work. And it also can draw research activity away from national priorities.

The Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) has recently published a guidance document aimed at optimising research institution building through better contracts and contracting in research partnerships. This initiative seeks to clarify the problems experienced in research relationships between high income and low income institutions. In particular, it focuses on issues that can be effectively addressed by developing and implementing guidance on research contracting in which the rights, responsibilities and requirements of all partners are recognised and addressed in an equitable and transparent manner.

We have identified five issues that, when properly negotiated by both partners, can lead to substantially improved outcomes for LMIC institutions. Capacity building and technology transfer, ownership of data, samples and publications, intellectual property rights, compensation for indirect costs and legislative frameworks governing contracts. These issues can promote or hinder equitable collaboration, depending on how they are dealt with in the contractual agreement. They are the focus of the fair research contracting guidance document.

The guide has been developed to offer broad guidance in practical terms to research managers and others involved in the negotiation of research contract. And also to navigate contractual terms for the benefit of their institutions as they engage in collaborative partnerships.

To ensure that the guidance is relevant to the circumstances and needs of those engaging in research partnerships, COHRED is inviting feedback on how the document can be adapted and improved.

Debbie Marais

Programme director COHRED Think.

Photo legend: Debbie Marais (on left) and Jacintha Toohey (on right), two of the co-authors on the booklet.

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One thought on “More equitable North/South research partnership”

  1. Very interesting indeed, and a sensitive posture to adress the increasing problem the brain drought issued from such inequities is becoming.
    Brain drought that only magnifies and institutionalizes the disparities between the haves and havenots, threatening to become not only permanent but mind-narrowing for the scientific community as awhole.