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Professor Kara Hanson: Equitable partnerships and capacity strengthening

Prof Kara Hanson hero image

Published: 17 May 2024

Programme Director for Global Health Professor Kara Hanson, shares her vision for raising the profile and impact of NIHR’s Global Health Research portfolio.

I joined the NIHR in the summer of 2023. One of my motivations for applying for this newly-created role was the opportunity to shape one of the UK’s leading global health research programmes. I had previous experience of engaging with NIHR through my own research applications, as well as from listening to colleagues talk about their awards. This allowed me to develop some clear ideas of where I wanted to guide the Global Health Research (GHR) portfolio in its ambitions of funding high quality, impactful research that improves the lives of people in low and middle income countries (LMICs).

There were 3 initial areas I wanted to focus on. The first was to improve the clarity of our different programmes so that researchers can easily find the scheme that best suits their research question, and the team’s experience and ambition. The second was to improve predictability by moving to a system of regular, annual funding opportunities so that research teams can plan ahead. I saw this as an important enabler of equitable partnerships, a key pillar of NIHR’s global health research funding. The third was to have schemes that would enable the best researchers from LMICs to successfully secure funding for their research ideas.

I’m pleased to say that we have made progress in all three of these areas. We have today launched a re-shaped portfolio of funding opportunities, with new tiered schemes for researcher-led programmes and health policy and systems research. Going forward nearly all of our programmes will have annual calls, with timelines announced well in advance. And going forward, we have removed the requirement for a UK co-lead on all of our programmes, reducing one of the barriers for LMIC- based researchers to access our funding. It should also help ensure that research is driven by locally-identified evidence gaps, which we know is key for research to impact on policy and practice.

Since joining the NIHR I have spent time listening to award holders, committee chairs and members, colleagues in the NIHR and other global research funders, and potential applicants. I’ve heard about the many strengths of the programme and importantly also about areas where we can improve.

A highlight was the launch of the new Global Advanced Fellowship at the end of January. During the launch event we heard about some of the challenges faced by researchers working in LMIC institutions. They often struggled to secure enough time to focus on research: academics in LMICs have to do a lot of their own research management, because the support systems are less institutionalised and are under-resourced.

Researchers also need support to develop their leadership and management skills: they are often managing large teams in complex environments. The two newest NIHR awards – the Global Health Development Awards and the Global Advanced Fellowship – try to address these issues in different ways. Both require applicants to include activities to strengthen research support functions. And the Global Advanced Fellowship offers award-holders the opportunity to design their own leadership development programme. Ultimately this will help them develop the skills needed to succeed in their careers and support their own developing teams.

A second highlight of recent months was the time I spent with the Global Research Professors at their annual gathering in April. This brought together all 6 cohorts of research professors to share their experiences and their projects. Their research is ambitious, broad-reaching, and presents enormous potential to improve health in LMICs.

For example, Professor Joe Jarvis who was a first-round award holder used his fellowship to lead a clinical trial of a new treatment for HIV-related meningitis that has already influenced WHO global guidelines. I was also happy to see the professors using the status conferred on them by their fellowships to bargain hard with their own institutions, to ensure that they are supported to become research leaders.

A recurrent theme has been equitable partnerships in global health research. A survey of award holders undertaken as part of our recent external evaluation identified important differences in how LMIC and UK researchers perceive the equity of their partnerships. The new leadership models for global health research applications should help level the playing field.

But there is more to do in this area. In the coming months I would like to see NIHR initiate a learning process to better understand the experiences of LMIC research co-leads, learn what practices are adopted in truly equitable partnerships throughout the lifetime of the project, and share this knowledge with applicants, so that they can begin to adopt these practices from the very start of the research application process.

Find out more about the changes to the Global Health portfolio.

Listen to Kara in conversation with Dr Michael Makanga of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership on the Lancet Global Health podcast.

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