Prof Joanna Chataway and Dr Tommaso Ciarli

This is the second of two STRINGS blogs which explore features and characteristics of science, technology and innovation (STI) policy and interventions that seem crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): open access and transdisciplinarity and building of local capabilities.

This blog focuses on the importance of local capabilities. The focus is predominantly on health but much of what is said has broader relevance. The broad argument is that although the SDGs are global goals, they won’t be achieved unless there is support for a variety of types of local capacity building and support for context specific policy and advice.

The first blog in this series was Part I: Maximising STI impact on the SDGs – open science: a case study on Chagas disease.

Global also needs local

The importance of local capacity building to complement global initiatives has been a focus of attention in health research but is relevant to other areas.

Beaglehole and Bonita et al (2010) offer a definition of global health which is broadly shared by many academics and policy makers in the field: “collaborative trans-national research and action for promoting health for all” 

Yet, we know that in order to maximise development benefits from investment in research and innovation, investment needs to support local capacity building. The articulation of local knowledge and local priorities has been explored from various angles by a diverse range of academics and policy researchers (to mention a few: Bell and Pavitt 1993; Cirera and Maloney 2017: Srinivas and Sutz 2008;  Kraemer-Mbula et al, 2020; Lebel and McLean, 2020).

A key issue is the development of absorptive capacity which enables the rewards of STI investment to take root and serve the needs of the communities that research and innovation purports to benefit. In this vein, Mugwagwa and colleagues write about the importance of ‘local health’ as a vital component of global health (Mugwagwa, 2020; Mackintosh et al 2018).

Without local research, innovation and associated science advisory capacity, health related and other global goals remain in the realm of ambitious targets which cannot be grounded in, informed by and made relevant to local contexts.

Mackintosh and colleagues argue that whilst global value chains provide vital supplies of pharmaceuticals, without local production low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) remain vulnerable in their ability to deal with health challenges.

An edited collection with its roots in Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID) funding details the ways in which Africa has in the past grown an effective pharmaceutical production capacity and could do so in the future. These capabilities and capacities are important because they enable a more powerful response to local health needs and challenges, and an influence over global agendas.

In a related article Mackintosh et al (2018) explain that the “concept of ‘local health’, as it emerges in…current African policy debate, is rooted in a dialogue between proximity and positionality. ‘Proximity’ refers to cumulative local interactions and mutual influences arising from co-location… ‘Positionality’… refers to the influence of location of agency on the framing of issues and priorities, with attendant claims to power and legitimacy in policy making”.

A current, highly interdisciplinary Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) project, led by Maureen Mackintosh, explores connections between industrial and health systems in improving cancer care in Tanzania and Kenya. One of the high level messages emerging from this and previous research is that maximising the developmental impact of STI requires us to think beyond the global funding of relevant research. We need also to think about capacities and capabilities in relation the geographies of knowledge generation and use.

Research looking at the contribution of research and innovation efforts to dealing with COVID-19 may well provide further evidence to support an argument that there are tangible connections between local scientific, innovation and industrial capabilities on the one hand and the ability of health systems to provide adequate care on the other hand, and encourage researchers to look more carefully at the linkages.

Capacity building as if local mattered

Some capacity building research focuses on an appreciation of the two-way flow between low-income and wealthier countries to maximise the impact of research and innovation. Local capacity and capabilities support effective use of global research – knowledge and research flowing from LMICs to high-income countries (HICs), as well as HICs to LMICs, enhance efficiencies.

This observation is not new and has been integrated into major capacity building initiatives such as the European and Developing Country Clinical Trials Programme (EDCTP). Some global health public private partnerships have long since incorporated this into their organisation and implementation of research and innovation planning (Chataway et al, 2010).

A recent paper from a study commissioned by DFID’s East Africa Hub (Frost et al, 2019) on knowledge system innovation (KSI) in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania makes this point more generally and argues for a reconceptualisation of STI investment, intervention and policy to fully build on opportunities to integrate local and global knowledge flows and systems. This requires acknowledgement of the importance of specific local contexts.

The analysis from this project has identified ways in which enabling environments for research and innovation and associated capacity and capabilities can be created so that global and local research efforts yield increased economic impact. But these relationships are complex, to some extent depend on specific contexts and have to be thought through in a systematic way.

For example, a planned and forthcoming report from the KSI project indicates that the role of education and in-country technological capabilities varies for countries with different KSI. In the case of a stronger knowledge system (according to standard STI indicators), technological capabilities are more relevant but education is less relevant for GDP growth, and can even be a drain if the education workforce is not absorbed by the labour market, causing a brain drain. In the context of weaker knowledge systems, basic institutions and education seem to be required for technological capabilities and infrastructures such as ICT to have an impact on GDP growth.

In low-income contexts looked at in the study, education has a more straightforward positive impact on GDP. There appears to be a virtuous cycle in weaker knowledge system contexts that can be exploited. In the short-term technological capabilities and ICT have a strong positive impact on the education, and education has a positive impact on GDP. GDP has a long germ impact on technological capabilities and ICT, which feedback on education, and so on.

Using bibliometric analysis, the report also highlights that although global research funding in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania is largely concentrated on health (i.e. SDG 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages), it is not the only SDG where the three countries target indicators perform poorly and where the country may benefit from building national research capability (Mormina, 2019).

At the same time, results suggest that despite so much funding going into health research, the SDG 3 target indicators have not improved substantially, suggesting that so much research may have not prioritised building of local capabilities. Increased local relevance will require research partnerships based on the articulation of local priorities and research requirements for implementation of research, for example investment in health systems research as well as biomedical research.

COVID-19 will provide us with additional evidence of the importance of funding research and innovation capabilities in LIMCs. This pandemic, like HIV/AIDS and other diseases which have impacted particularly negatively on poor people living in environments where resources are limited, require local research efforts as well as global efforts to develop vaccines and treatments.

Moreover, capacity built in one area can help in more rapid response in different areas. For example, the EDCTP’s COVID-19 response is possible because of previous and unrelated research and innovation capacity that has been built.

Science policy as if local science advice mattered

As part of the more general argument that local capabilities are important, is a particular point crucial to the success of initiatives to effectively align STI to the development goals. Science advice to policymakers and decision makers needs to be rooted in expertise about local contexts.

The SDGs are global. Many of the targets, metrics and models associated with the SDGs are based on global analysis and trends. Science advice at a global level relating to international treaties and initiatives reflects this.

But to get to global success we need to make the translation to local contexts. With this in mind, the work of The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), with its aims to build capabilities at all levels of government, is critical.