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Supporting research capacity strengthening for global health

Data management workshop session

Dr. Safat Ullah (standing right) facilitating a clinical trials data management workshop at the 3rd International public health conference, Khyber Medical University, Pakistan.

Published: 23 March 2023

How NIHR supports career development

NIHR’s global health research priorities include a commitment to strengthen research capacity in low and middle income countries (LMICs). Across the portfolio, we put research capacity strengthening at the heart of everything we do. 

This month, we shine a spotlight on the work of the NIHR Global Health Research Academy. The NIHR Academy strengthens capacity by supporting the career development of NIHR-funded researchers at any stage of their career. 

Anyone who is funded or supported by an NIHR Global Health Research award is eligible to become an NIHR Academy Member. There are now more than 350 members working in ODA-eligible countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the UK. Members receive training to develop their careers, supported by Training Leads within each funded project. 

Training Leads play an active role in Members’ development, and themselves benefit from training and networking. The Academy holds an annual NIHR Global Health Research Training Forum to bring the Training Leads together. The forum functions as a ‘community of practice’ to share knowledge and identify future development needs.

The NIHR Academy currently offers three funding schemes for global health researchers to improve their skills:

Bright SPARCs to Global Research Professors

Dr. Safat Ullah is a clinician at Khyber Medical University in Pakistan. In recent years, he has also been developing his research with the NIHR Global Health Research Group on Addressing Smokeless Tobacco and building Research Capacity in South Asia (ASTRA).

In 2020, Safat was among the first early-career researchers awarded a NIHR Global Health (SPARC) award. As part of this, he undertook a six month placement at the University of York where he learned how to manage randomised clinical trials. On his return to Pakistan, he was able to step up to co-lead a research project on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.

“My placement gave me confidence and equipped me with innovative and exciting ideas, and networking in a different culture”, he said. “I would encourage anyone who wants to take the next step in their research career to apply for a SPARC award."

Safat is one of 15 early-career researchers who have benefited from the SPARC award scheme to date.

NIHR Academy also supports researchers working at more senior academic levels.  We award our flagship Global Research Professorships to academic leaders. These leaders have a track-record of applied health research in LMICs.  Each award includes funding for support posts, research running costs and leadership training.

Professor Hannah Kuper is co-director of the International Centre for Evidence in Disability at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She is also one of eight NIHR Global Research Professors. She is currently leading a five-year project to develop and test community-led interventions. The goal is to improve health care for people with disabilities in Uganda.

"Our study is pioneering new approaches to improve healthcare access, reduce deaths and improve the health of people with disabilities”, she said.

“We know that people living with disabilities face many barriers to accessing healthcare. This funding will enable us to build new partnerships as we identify and test a sustainable model to meet the needs of people and communities."

The team includes researchers from Makerere University and MRC Uganda Virus Research Institute. Practitioners from the group Women and Children First are also a part of the team.  The team includes two post-doctoral researchers – one from Uganda and one from Zimbabwe. It is also supporting two more African researchers with disabilities to complete their PhDs.

“We hope that a key legacy of this project will be that researchers from Africa have strengthened capacity to conduct research on disability, and will be the future leaders of this field”, said Professor Kuper.

Looking ahead to the future

The NIHR Academy is bringing together the diverse and growing number of global Members using virtual meeting spaces and learning platforms.

The first online training event open to all NIHR Academy Members was held in July 2022. Around 160 participants from NIHR-funded teams took part in two days of talks, workshops and interactive networking sessions focused on career development. On 21-22 March, the Academy held a second training event on the theme of ‘communicating research’. This virtual event, introduced by NIHR’s CEO Professor Lucy Chappell, attracted more than 200 registered participants from all over the world. 

These training events are organised by a planning committee including ten LMIC-based members from around the world. Rasika Samanmalee, a PhD student and lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka is an early career researcher on the planning committee. 

“These training events are a great experience”, Rasika said. “We want to enable researchers from different countries, disciplines and career stages to come together, embracing diverse perspectives on global health issues and expanding our knowledge and understanding."

Beyond that, the NIHR Academy is developing an accessible virtual learning platform to share resources and knowledge, and to support networking and collaboration. For full details visit our global health research career development webpage.

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