COVID-19 and research systems: An urgent need for fresh thinking in the Global South

SERIES COVID-19 25 items

It’s spring 2020 in Myanmar and the global pandemic has begun. The international organisations that ‘dominate’ the Mynamese research policy field are operating at minimum capacity, as staff repatriate in the face of the pandemic. Mynamese think tanks and local researchers are pushed to the forefront of research and policy debates, as the government turns to them for advice to address the crisis. But, without international partners ‘on the ground’, the funding on which local research centres depend is drying up.

This picture in Myanmar, painted by Zaw Oo, Executive Director of the Yangon-based Center for Economic and Social Development during last year’s OTT conference, points to some complex dynamics in Southern research systems, brought to the surface by the pandemic.

Challenges to local capacity are the trigger for international support to research, but this also creates an international market for inequitable partnerships that ultimately hampers the development of local institutions and puts them on the side lines of the policy advocacy arena. When international actors leave, funding for local researchers dries up, in a cycle that undermines local knowledge ecosystems.

Both negative impacts and new opportunities have emerged for Southern researchers and research institutions during the pandemic. But less attention has been paid to the systems that underpin how, where and by whom knowledge is produced, communicated and used. By ‘systems’ we are referring to the networks of organisations and individuals, and the mechanisms and bodies that connect or exclude them.

Strong and dynamic knowledge systems are an essential part of the interface between governments and society – providing governments with the knowledge they need to effectively meet the needs of their citizens. Strong research and knowledge systems are also critical parts of any country’s response to major shocks, as well as to its longer-term development needs. This has been made abundantly clear by the ever more complex impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our societies.

Yet, we know little about research and knowledge systems, and about how social research is produced, circulated and used, particularly when it comes to developing countries. And the knowledge we do have is not effectively deployed to make the best investments to strengthen systems.

This is the time to step up efforts to better understand how these systems work, with the view to building our collective resilience in the face of current and future emergencies.

ACTS, ARIN, GDN, INASP, Southern Voice, and others recently joined hands to call for coordinated global work on research and knowledge systems, starting from the impact of the pandemic on social research capacity and knowledge in developing countries. This, we think, is critical to address the long-term impact of the current crisis – starting now.

A closer look at the impacts of COVID-19 on research and knowledge systems

In a recent workshop, 50 representatives from 27 countries and five continents (over 85% from the Global South) discussed the impact of COVID-19 on research and knowledge systems – sharing examples of both new opportunities and challenges.

From the impact of the pandemic on the careers of women researchers and doctoral training, to practical guidance on meeting ethical and quality standards, there is widespread concern regarding the negative impact of COVID-19 on individual researchers and research institutions.

At the same time, there has been genuine interest in new opportunities emerging in response to the pandemic, particularly in the Global South. For example, calls to make the most of the pandemic to rethink research agendas and seize unique opportunities for data collection alongside the realisation that the temporary halt to ‘helicopter research’ in developing countries allows Southern researchers to play a larger role in meeting the growing demand for evidence from national and international agencies.

The ‘covidisation’ of research and an expansion of funding and finance space for mission-oriented research was cited by many – as were the gaps and weaknesses in systems that the pandemic has exposed.

Think tank representatives and researchers talked about being thrust into the spotlight as knowledge intermediaries and brokers, able to gather and analyse data more rapidly than before. While others talked of an increased demand for evidence from legislators. Researchers noted the speed with which results were being published, often in open modes that made them more widely accessible.

But this was coupled with concerns about an increasing volume of research being published without formal review, a concomitant need to speed the research assessment processes. Without structures to formalise the positive changes that have emerged, will a push towards openness and trust in science be lasting?

Funder representatives talked about positive changes to the way funding was being provided – with groups of funders cooperating to launch rapid calls and disburse funding swiftly to research teams.

But for many, there were also concerns that the concentration of research funding on COVID-19, and particularly the emphasis on a biomedical and health response, has meant that the broader resilience of knowledge systems, exposed by the pandemic, have been simultaneously overlooked.

In universities, as in other institutions, the pandemic has forced innovations in digital learning and the shift to online convening has provided new opportunities to connect with peers across countries.

But we also heard concerns about students struggling to complete their degrees or research studies as a result of changing funding cycles and diversion of funding to other priorities, imperilling the much-needed next generation of research talent in countries already trying to increase knowledge-system capacity.

Discussions all pointed to the lack of tools, data and frameworks to allow these developments to be systematically tracked and understood

This leads to a sense of fragmented and fractured knowledge about how the pandemic has affected –and continues to affect – research systems. And this makes it difficult to determine how best to respond.

A number of knowledge-brokering initiatives are providing useful aggregation and dashboards of COVID-related research (for example, Southern Voice’s COVID-19 Newsletter, the World Bank Group’s Indonesia COVID-19 Observatory, ECLAC’s COVID-19 Observatory in Latin America and the Caribbean, CGD’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, and ISC’s Future Scenarios for the COVID-19 Pandemic).

As in other areas of life, the pandemic has driven new thinking about how to build more resilient systems.

Globally, but particularly in the Global South, the number of scholars looking into systemic aspects of research, and social research in particular, is limited, but not a tabula rasa. The first step is to convene existing capacity and to connect it across countries, so as to advance the reflection and opportunity for cross- and comparative learning.

This group is putting forward the idea of an observatory that would give Southern scholars a voice in global debates about the future of research systems. A space for the development of shared research agendas and to make existing work visible and accessible.

A lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic on the capacity of the system risks losing the gains of previous decades of research capacity strengthening, and risks missing the opportunity for strengthening and enhancing it further. With strategic support from global donors (joining hands in a small but mighty coalition), we can strengthen the collective capacity to address the long-term impacts of current emergencies, and strengthen the resilience of our highly interconnected systems.

If you would like to collaborate, please get in touch with Francesco Obino, Head of Programmes, GDN (Global Development Network) [email protected] or Jon Harle, Director of Programmes, INASP (International Network for Advancing Science and Policy) [email protected]