University of Cape Town: Championing equity in a world of scientific colonialism

This is what stakeholders and experts in research integrity were focused on as they hashed out a Cape Town Statement on Fostering Research Integrity in an Unequal World.

Aimed at driving equality, fairness and diversity in international research partnerships – in everything from funding to roles within research projects, context of study and ultimately publication and credit – its goal is to maximise the input and value of all players so that global challenges are optimally tackled.

The topic was suggested as this was the first time the World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) has been held in Africa. It was also fully hybrid and streamed to stakeholders around the globe. This biennial conference is the most important international conference on ethical research practices and is underpinned by the World Conference of Research Integrity Foundation.

Each previous conference has hashed out an important statement or declaration on research integrity.

Why a Cape Town Statement?

“The Cape Town Statement needs to accomplish two aims,” said Dr Lyn Horn, the managing director of the Office of Research Integrity at UCT, in her opening address at Plenary A.

“First, it must clearly demonstrate why inequity and unfair practices – lack of diversity and inclusivity in research collaborations and contexts – is a research integrity matter.

“Second, it must identify key values or principles and action guides that will address the issue of equity and fairness in research within the context of the complete research life cycle.”

This includes everything from proposal development, grant application, allocation and management of funding, data production, analysis, management and sharing, to outputs, translation and evaluation.

Scientific colonialism, the current status quo

“In global partnerships there is inevitably a ‘big brother’ issue, where the Global North is seen as decision maker,” said Francis Kombe, a founding member of the African Research Integrity Network, an early career researcher and promoter of research integrity in Africa.

“We need to look at how we can address imbalances in the decision-making processes so the weaker partner also plays a meaningful role.”

“We need to look at how we can address imbalances in the decision-making processes so the weaker partner also plays a meaningful role, instead of big brother syndrome.”

Kombe cited the enormous growth in research collaborations globally and the undisputed value of these partnerships, particularly in the light of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“There are, however, serious inequities with negative consequences for lower and middle (LMIC) countries.”

Consider the huge financial differences. The Global North has access to enormous reservoirs of research funding, high-end technical equipment and infrastructure, while Africa is chronically underfunded, working with low research salaries and minimal equipment and skilled research management staff.

Failure is not an option

“The achievement of the SDGs and balance in our world requires effective collaboration of knowledge partners,” said Professor Sue Harrison, UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation, with a background in chemical engineering.

She used the catchphrase “scientific colonialism”, also known as helicopter research, to describe the practice of researchers from the Global North swooping in to mine data on “our interesting and critical problems”, much in the way colonisers would exploit local resources for their own gain.

“This conversation around the Cape Town Statement is critical to build on this momentum for building equity into research collaborations for authentic partnering.”

“Africa faces the highest burdens of the grand challenge problems that researchers are trying to tackle: development, food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, urbanisation and disease. This not only makes the continent the place where the challenges are at their greatest, it also makes Africa a data-rich, interesting place to study.”

However, in typical global partnerships, local researchers are used for data extraction, with little responsibility, credit or benefit to themselves or the communities from which the data is taken. Not only that, but the northern researcher, by so doing, is the poorer in terms of true understanding of local context or the communities impacted, a subject more familiar to the local researcher.

“This conversation around the Cape Town Statement is critical to build on this momentum for building equity into research collaborations for authentic partnering,” said Professor Harrison.

Winds of change

“There is a growing recognition of the need to improve the fairness of research partnerships,” said Professor Jim Lavery, the inaugural Conrad N Hilton Chair in Global Health Ethics and Professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health, Rollins School of Public Health, and Faculty of the Centre for Ethics, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

He cited the Research Fairness Initiative as an emerging strategy and unique tool to encourage institutions to strive towards improving partnership fairness and to offer substantive guidance in terms of institutional self-assessment toward policy and practice review.

He broke down the domains of fairness into opportunity (pre-research), fair process (during research) and fair sharing of benefits, costs and outcomes.

The Cape Town Statement, a declaration towards overcoming the legacy of inequity

Prior to the WCRI, the Cape Town Statement team had come up with 10 core values and principles towards greater equity in global partnerships, ranging from accountability by institutions, respect for diversity of skills and knowledge, fair practice in terms of building research systems and capacity in LMICs to inclusivity by donors and funders, and greater research investment by Global South governments to nurture a culture of evidence-based policy making.

With the scene set by the plenary, the next steps were two focus track sessions with the goal of completing a Cape Town Statement by the end of the conference and bringing the research world closer to acknowledging inequity as a research integrity issue and lighting the way forward.

“I hope this Cape Town Statement provides us with a much-needed road map towards equitable partnerships, or at least the start of one,” said Harrison.

“A diverse group of people who all feel empowered to speak their mind, give their opinion, test their theories and work within a trust environment is going to come closer to solving a problem than a homogenous group of researchers who see the research question as something that happens somewhere else to other people.”