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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Native Informants No More,

I have heard African scholars whinge about the asymmetry of research partnerships with colleagues from the universities in North America and Europe. For the most part researchers from developing countries do not have the resources, financial and infrastructure, necessary to undertake advanced multi-year science projects.

Invariably, universities in the North have the cash and infrastructure to dedicate to research. But often the field site for research happens to be in Africa. This is especially true for research in areas such as tropical ecology and biology. What tends to happen is that African scholars are invited by counterparts from the North as partners in a research project that is conceived and funded to serve not their interests or address priority research questions that are urgent or immediately relevant to a local problem.

African scholars in this arrangement tend to play the role of "native informants". For the most part they facilitate access to field sites, arrange introductions with government and local officials. So for practical reasons, African scholars merely serve a PR role. If they are lucky they may get a graduate student on the project and also get their name close to the end of the list of authors in a publication.

The reason for this bad situation is because public spending on research in Africa is infinitesimal or nonexistent. Hence invitation to "collaborate" in a project by researchers from the North is by far an irresistible proposition.

But this is to change.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Agency for International Development have opened a funding stream for scientists in the developing world. The Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER) will enable collaborations with scientists who are funded by the NSF; the US National Academies will help to administer the initiative. Applicants need a letter of support from their US-based partners. The first request for proposals will be released in August, and the first round of funding will be awarded later this year. Six PEER pilot projects — focused on areas such as hydrology, biodiversity and seismology — are already being financed in Tanzania, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

--Nature 475, 415 (01 July 2011) doi:10.1038/nj7356-415b

Published online 20 July 2011

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