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NIHR connecting future leaders in global health

Published: 17 June 2021

Professor Melanie Newport, co-Chair of the NIHR Global Health Research Training Forum Steering Group, reflects on progress in capacity strengthening for researchers and developing supportive research environments in low and middle income countries (LMICs). 

The NIHR Academy recently held its third annual Global Health Research Training Forum meeting, and it was wonderful to see the momentum of the Forum growing, building on the achievements of previous meetings.  

Mentorship, leadership and career progression in focus

The NIHR Global Health Research portfolio funds research to address locally-identified challenges in low and middle income countries (LMICs), by supporting equitable research partnerships between researchers and institutions in the UK and those in LMICs. All projects have dedicated training leads, and the aim of the Training Forum is to bring them together to network and share best practice. 

More than 90 participants attended sessions over the three days, and it was great to see so many joining from LMIC institutions across the diverse range of projects funded by NIHR, and there was great engagement through the chat and Q&A features. 

Building on previous Forum meetings, this year’s Forum focused on mentorship, leadership and career progression for early career researchers and allied health professionals. For each of these areas we held a plenary session followed by regional breakout groups (Africa, Asia,Central and South America) with everyone coming together at the end of the session to share key points from the breakout groups. The aim of regional breakout groups was to allow training leads from the same region to connect and develop joint training activities that addressed regional needs.

Tackling deep complex issues

By its nature, the NIHR Academy’s focus is on the growth of individual capacity and the development of future research leaders, but effective research capacity strengthening requires a multi-faceted approach, focusing also on the institutions and systems in which the individual is embedded, especially on a global scale and when investment in research infrastructure in many areas is neglected.  

Deep, complex issues that need to be tackled were widely aired during the Forum meeting, with an ‘on-the-ground’ approach. Cross-cutting themes emerged in all sessions, including: the role of ingrained gender and racial inequalities; negative impact of hierarchical structures; power imbalances such as funding and knowledge, and lack of resources and infrastructure. All these factors prevent trainees reaching their full potential. 

Many insights were shared and regional differences discussed. For example, researchers from Central and South America highlighted their different colonial histories compared to African and Asian colleagues, and its wider ramifications, such as accessing UK funding is new for many, and English not being as widely spoken, creating another barrier around communication. 

Participants shared ideas to move the agenda forward and harness the outstanding resources we have within the portfolio, and the NIHR more widely, to address these issues. These include, for example, how to develop a mentorship programme, or a clearer career pathway for allied health professionals whose roles are often not recognised in research and who are negatively impacted by inter-professional boundaries and hierarchical systems. 

Invest in individuals and institutions

We were honoured to have Professor Agnes Bingawaho, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity, Rwanda, join the final panel and give her perspectives. Her main message was that building capacity at institutional level is critical – investing in the individual without providing ‘a landing platform’ for them (as fellow panellist Professor Samson Kinyanjui put it) prevents retention of trained researchers and contributes to the ‘brain drain’. 

We have a great opportunity to make a difference through the wide diversity represented within the Forum and the determination of everyone involved to contribute their time and effort towards this goal.  

We are already looking forward to next year’s meeting, but in the meantime, the Forum remains active and we have set up a series of ‘task and finish’ groups involving NIHR and the Global Health Research communities to crystallise thinking and develop strategy moving forward.   

Professor Melanie Newport, co-Chair of the NIHR Global Health Research Training Forum Steering Group and lead investigator of the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Neglected Tropical Diseases

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