Equitable collaborations

19 August 2022


Equitable collaborations

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher, Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP)

This year, CSaP partnered with the Wellcome Sanger Institute for a series of workshops on equity in international research collaborations––a fair distribution of responsibilities, benefits, and kudos between low and middle-income country (LMIC) researchers and high-income country (HIC) researchers.

Wellcome Sanger’s mission is to use information from genome sequences to advance understanding of biology and improve health. They do this by conducting research which cannot easily be conducted elsewhere. Wellcome Sanger’s Policy Team was recently tasked with examining their research culture to see how it can underpin excellent science. An important dimension of an excellent research culture is equity in collaborations with international researchers. The importance of this dimension spurred Wellcome Sanger’s Policy Team to consult with international researchers to draft a definition of ‘equitable collaboration’ and a series of guidelines to ensure that equity is embedded into their practices and processes. CSaP convened a series of workshops, on behalf of Wellcome Sanger’s Policy Team, which brought LMIC researchers together with HIC researchers and funders to attain feedback on this drafted work. The workshops also provided the opportunity to consider general strategies for, and challenges to, embedding equity in the broader research culture.

The first workshop was held as an online exploratory session on 29 April 2022. This format allowed for the inclusion of a broad range of LMIC researchers. Wellcome Sanger’s proposed definition of ‘equitable collaboration’ and their drafted guidelines were well received by the attendees, though some alterations were suggested. Other initiatives, and research, focused on equitable collaborations also received attention. In particular, it was hoped that Wellcome Sanger’s finalised guidelines could be shared more widely via the UK Collaborative on Development Research’s Equitable Partnerships Resource Hub––which hosts tools, guidance, and resources for ensuring that equity is embedded into international research collaborations.

Beyond a focus on equity initiatives, practical changes to the research culture were suggested, as well as models for change. A key theme of this discussion was how to achieve equity throughout the different stages of the research process––from the contracting stage to the authorship stage. Contracts received particular attention. The cultural gulf between LMIC researchers and HIC administrators can lead to contractual disagreements regarding fair treatment, in which the former hold little power. Stress was also put on the need for network building between LMICs, an activity which Wellcome Sanger could incentivise and/or fund. Participants were also invited to share positive examples of equitable research collaborations which might serve as models for Wellcome Sanger’s initiative. Cambridge-Africa‘s ALBORADA Research Fund––which provides small grants to collaborations between Cambridge academics and sub-Saharan African researchers to run studies, buy equipment, fund travel, etc.––was one such example.

The second workshop was held in Cambridge on 23 May 2022. Its purpose was to build upon the exploratory session, by gaining further feedback on the draft guidelines, and challenging HIC researchers and funders to consider what a broader model of equitable collaborations should look like. Once again, the draft guidelines were warmly received, with some alterations suggested. Much of the discussion focussed on the uneven distribution of resources between LMIC and HIC researchers. Research management support and time were cited as two examples. The barriers generated by the funding process were also highlighted. In particular, application criteria––such as the requirement for a main applicant––generally bias collaborations in favour of HIC researchers. Barriers are also created by the current approach to publishing, from authorship credit not being fairly distributed to the favouring of ‘international journals’––based in HICs––when publishing collaborative research. Finally, attention was drawn to the distinction between equitable collaborations carried out in research institutes versus universities. Whilst equitable collaborations can more easily be incentivised through Wellcome Sanger’s annual appraisals, universities may require a broader cultural change. It was hoped that Wellcome Sanger’s initiative might inspire such change.

Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge