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Dr David Mills, Department of Education, University of Oxford

Dr Karen Iles 


Locally-produced health research is critical for addressing global health challenges and promoting development in low and middle income countries. Yet, despite decades of international efforts, attempts to strengthen the capacity of local actors, institutions and systems to generate and utilise research remain insufficient and fragmented. Research capacity strengthening (RCS) is generally conceptualised and operationalised within international research collaborations as knowledge transfers from highly skilled to less skilled individuals on a “learning by doing” basis during the research process. This embedding of RCS within research collaborations enables the acquisition of tacit knowledge that formal learning cannot provide. At the same time, it raises a number of operational and ethical tensions related to: 1) power relations within research collaborations (who has capacity and who lacks it); 2) the dominance of western paradigms of knowledge production and validation reflecting hierarchical relations often rooted in the colonial past (who decides what knowledge is produced and what research capacity “looks like”); 3) the geographies of knowledge production (where is capacity being strengthened) and the implications this has for enabling inclusive, just and sustainable development. 

Despite the recognised importance of fostering strong knowledge systems in developing countries, evidence to guide approaches to RCS is largely lacking and current strategies are based on implicit assumptions regarding patterns of interactions, relations dynamics and values that underpin the research process. This project will use a mix-methods methodology to build a strong evidence base to assess current RCS strategies in global health. The evidence generated will then inform the development of a global justice framework for RCS.  Ultimately, the aim is to promote best practice by questioning the assumptions underpinning RCS and provide research funders and policy makers with operational and ethical benchmarks so that health research is harnessed for development in practice and not just rhetorically. 


The project will provide a strong grounding on quantitative and qualitative methods for the social sciences. Empirical methods will be combined with ethical analysis to inform evidence-based normative principles for the design and implementation of RCS.    


The project will analyse data from funders’ databases (e.g. H2020 Participant Portal), using quantitative methods (e.g. Social Network Analysis) to uncover patterns of North/South health research collaborations with an RCS component (geographic spread, recurrence, in-country distribution). Specific projects, institutions and individuals will be identified for primary data collection from databases and also from the networks of capacity development organisations such as INASP, GDN and the Centre for Capacity Research based at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and specific issues explored through qualitative analysis.  There is substantial flexibility on the specific focus of the research but it is expected that it will centre around the emerging patterns of interactions within and outside research collaborations and how these contribute to increased research capacity (understood as a process of social change) at the individual/organisational/national levels. Fieldwork will likely be required for qualitative data collection.


This project will suit someone with a social science background and an interest in the ethical dimensions of research for development (R4D). The ideal candidate will have strong quantitative skills and a willingness to learn qualitative/philosophical methodologies.