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Tackling extreme heat, changing behaviours and changing policy. Photo taken during Elrha field visit to a Johns Hopkins University study in Karachi (Heat Emergency Awareness and Treatment) in 2018.

Today marks the launch of the new Good Practice Document, ‘Four Approaches to Supporting Equitable Research Partnerships’, developed by the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR) and ESSENCE on Health Research.

Our Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme contributed to this landmark new guidance by participating in the Task Force which supported the development of this document. We also contributed a ‘Case Study: Using seed funding to incubate research partnerships’, sharing the lessons learned from our programme, which has supported over 95 research-practice partnerships since 2013.

The case study highlights how seed funds can strengthen partnerships, what it means to have a strong research partnership, and how our thinking is always evolving. Importantly, it demonstrates the importance of investing in research partnerships as standard, not just when there is a funding opportunity.

Seed funding: what, how and why?

A unique feature of the R2HC is the requirement for academic and humanitarian operational organisations to partner together. For studies two or more years in length, seed funding is made available to enable research teams to meet to support partnership development as part of the bid submission.

Seed funding has facilitated face-to-face meetings to better inform research design and, most importantly, to confirm and strengthen partnerships between collaborating organisations. It has also allowed for critical project ‘building work’, such as engaging external stakeholders or conducting formative data collection.

Seed funding has created critical time and space for teams that would otherwise have had to launch straight into research delivery. Academic researchers and humanitarian practitioners are busy and time-poor — feedback shows that this extra collaboration time has been precious. This is especially the case for partners in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), who have been able to participate more meaningfully in early-stage project design and decision-making.

At Elrha, we aim to support four partnering principles: equity, transparency, mutual benefit and responsibility. R2HC’s seed funding is one way we support teams in operationalising these principles, as the following grantee quote demonstrates:

“The primary purpose of this funding was to further develop equitable partnerships among the [partners]…We focused on team building. Discussions included feasibility and research design, team structure/roles, engaging community stakeholders, proposal development, and budget. We also discussed potential challenges, ethical considerations, and university partnerships. […and developed] a Partnership Agreement using Elrha’s template. The agreement outlines our team structure… the purpose of the partnership and expected inputs and outputs from each partner with clear timeframes.” — University of Washington

Our 2021 learning paper, From Knowing to Doing, reflects on the links between research partnerships, evidence use, and impact. It shows that investing in strengthening partnerships has an impact rationale, enabling participation of partners with expertise from the countries in which the research takes place, who are well-positioned to translate, use, and apply findings in specific contexts.

Although seed funding comes with costs, both in terms of administration and project timelines, we believe it offers good value for money.

Evolving approaches to funding equitable research partnerships

Seed funding is just one of a range of approaches we have used since 2013 to support the strengthening of research partnerships and early-stage project development.

R2HC-funded studies have always required academic-humanitarian research partnerships, but many of the first studies we funded lacked involvement from in-country research partners. In-country academics bring a range of benefits to research, both through local knowledge and cultural understanding, and connections with Ministries of Health and other users of evidence. Recognising this, we introduced a requirement that, as well as humanitarian partners, all research teams must include researchers from the country or region where the study is taking place. These wider research partnerships have provided valuable opportunities for north-south knowledge transfer and skills exchange.

In the meantime, we have continued to draw on learning from our Partnerships Review report, impact evaluations, and Research Forums, along with ideas from external stakeholders such as International Development Research Centre’s (IDRC) Research Quality Plus framework.

In 2022, this informed the design of our new 18-month research calls, placing greater emphasis on strong partnerships ‘positioned for impact’. Applicants were asked to demonstrate:

  • an established research-practice partnership with a track record of collaborating on the chosen topic;
  • evidence of existing relationships with humanitarian stakeholders and their demand for the research;
  • a deep understanding of the local context, including leadership from researchers based in the country(s).

The idea was to discover existing partners collaborating in an area of research aligned with our objectives, primed and ready to use our funding to take them to the next step.

This thinking evolved from our learning that existing research partnerships experience fewer challenges than new partnerships, and recognises the potential offered by long-term research collaborations.

While our 2022 funding call requirements cannot completely replace the value of seed-funding, Expressions of Interest have been high in quality and offer positive signs of encouragement.

In addition, we plan to provide ongoing support to ensure study teams deliver quality research and maintain strong partnerships. This will include targeted advice, tools, and workshops on topics like partnerships, risk management and impact, as well as peer learning opportunities and flexible resourcing.

Time to think bigger: Looking beyond a single project

Whether through seed funding or funding call requirements, we will continue to prioritise funding for strong partnerships. We know that this matters if research is to improve the lives of people affected by crises.

We are also committed to providing greater opportunities to involve humanitarian and research partners from LMICs. Building quality research partnerships that deliver impactful research means, ideally, going ‘beyond a single project’. Instead, we want to foster communities of partners who share common goals and build experience and expertise over time.

We recognise that this will be hard to achieve while both academics and humanitarians remain on the ‘project delivery/fundraising’ treadmill. Seed funding is a positive and valued mechanism. But do we also need to think bigger?

Greater calls to ‘shift the power’, support equitable partnerships, and achieve impact, mean it’s becoming less acceptable for research institutions to conduct humanitarian research in isolation.

Funders like us, and those featured in the UKCDR and ESSENCE Good Practice Document, favour balanced consortia of partners that bring expertise from across the globe — at international, national, and local levels. Failing to invest time and resources to nurture partnerships risks the most legitimate and knowledgeable actors missing out on vital research funds.

We want to see a research ecosystem that values and invests in partnership development outside of funding cycles. This requires action from all organisations and individuals working in this space.

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