Disadvantaged SA universities see promise in research fairness scheme

By Linda Nordling.

Read time 2min 50sec

The University of Fort Hare and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) could be among the first South African research institutions to evaluate the fairness of their research practices using a recently-launched benchmarking scheme.

The two 'historically disadvantaged' institutions joined four others - including heavyweights like the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University - at a workshop in Cape Town on 2 to 3 October to learn more about making submissions to the nascent Research Fairness Initiative.

According to Prem Govender, SMU's director of research and postgraduate studies, the RFI holds promise for South Africa's smaller universities. "We're a new university, a health-focused university, and the RFI gives us a toolbox that we can use to audit where we are at and where we are going," he said.

The RFI, managed by the Switzerland-based Council on Health Research for Development, is designed to help institutions probe a range of issues related to ethical and fair research, such as benefit-sharing, equal partnerships and good conduct. It was created in response to complaints from developing country researchers of unfair treatment in partnerships, as well as concerns about intellectual property management.

Universities, research institutes or funders can submit institutional evaluations to the RFI, which the initiative then validates. The final report is not of 'pass or fail' type, but a narrative of where institutions are performing well and where they can improve. Institutions with validated reports can display the RFI logo on their Web site, and will be listed as "RFI compliant". They can keep the reports internal, share them with partners, or display them publicly.

Three African institutions - all based in Senegal - have already submitted reports, which are undergoing validation. A fourth, the Institute of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Portugal, is in the process of compiling a report. However, the initiative's staff are hopeful that more institutions will join, and that donors will help fund the initiative.

Voster Muchenje, professor of meat science at the UFH, told Research Africa that he believed RFI validation would benefit his university. The 17 topics covered by the submission survey document, ranging from relevance of research to communities to IP negotiations, offer "a good tool for self-evaluation", he said.

Going through the evaluation process would help avoid unethical practices, he added, and also help the university get its documentation in order to comply more easily with the reporting requirements of international research funders.

According to SMU's Govender, the workshop threw up surprising commonalities between his small, new university and the challenges faced by research heavyweights like UCT and Stellenbosch. "Even they don't have all of this in place. There's a little bit of solidarity there," he said.

He added that engaging with the RFI had given him "ammunition" for asserting SMU's rights in partnerships with better-resourced institutions, both international and local. There are benefits to being small and new, he said. "It's easier to turn a smaller ship."

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