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Opinion

How has Covid-19 shaped the engagement of research with policy and practice in Low and Middle Income Countries?

Published on 7 July 2022

Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Sophie Marsden

Communications and Impact Officer

Programme Manager of COVID CIRCLE

Communications Assistant, UKCDR

Last week COVID CIRCLE (UKCDR) and Covid Collective held a joint webinar exploring the impact of social science research in shaping the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The event brought together members of COVID CIRCLE (UKCDR) & Covid Collective (IDS) researcher communities, along with other colleagues from across the research for development landscape. Two researchers from each programme gave their reflections on research engagement during the pandemic in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC) settings. Dr Maxine Caws, Senior Lecturer from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, spoke about the importance of building scientific capacity to respond to these crises through her research in Nepal. Andrea Ordóñez, Director of Southern Voice, then shared her lessons from the pandemic, outlining the need to foster better, more inclusive knowledge systems.

You can find a summary of the event here.

We asked Daniela Toale, Programme Manager of COVID CIRCLE at UKCDR, and Peter Taylor, Research Director of the Covid Collective, to share their thoughts on some of the questions that emerged from the event.

What role did research play in the rapid response to the pandemic globally?

Daniela: There is no denying that the role research has played in the pandemic has been immense. This is particularly evident when we look at the development of diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics in the ‘race’ against the virus.

All projects funded within the COVID CIRCLE Researcher Community focus on pandemic-related research in LMICs. These projects have been instrumental in, to name but a few, supporting the alignment of research to global agendas and locally identified priorities, filling knowledge gaps to inform policy and practice, and creating sustainable research capacity to respond to future outbreaks. Dr Maxine Caws’s Wellcome and FCDO-funded consortium project is a perfect example of this as it helped to establish coronavirus sequencing surveillance and a Long Covid-19 cohort in Nepal, which helped to contain the virus and build genomic and epidemiological expertise in the country. This is hugely impressive as PCR testing and sequencing capabilities were particularly limited at the start of the pandemic.

Peter: Daniela is absolutely right that research has played a crucial role in the Covid-19 response. The Covid Collective has also demonstrated the importance of social science research in responding to the pandemic, and the need to ensure that interdisciplinary approaches bring together different perspectives, voices, and experiences. This approach has been vital in a period of uncertainty and complexity, with the need to check and challenge global assumptions about how short and mid-term impacts of the pandemic in different contexts are playing out. This approach will continue to be important beyond this current phase of the pandemic, as we start to see longer-term impacts.

We need to understand more about the intersections of this global health crisis with multiple other crises: food insecurity, rising levels of poverty, climate change, and war and conflict.

How important are relationships and trust in building a coherent research response to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Daniela: I think it is important to recognise and reflect on the context in which funders and researchers found themselves in 2020: in a never-before-seen-in-this-century pandemic, with an urgent need for rapid funding. From a logistical point of view, rapid funding was most easily facilitated through supplementing existing successful funded research activities and harnessing longstanding research partnerships and capacity. This, in turn, led to organisations with in-depth contextual knowledge being quickly mobilised and pivoting their work to play a humanitarian role. Without the organisations dedicating time and resources to building influential relationships and trust during the inter-epidemic period, we wouldn’t have seen such a successful research response.

Peter: Researchers were able to engage quickly with existing partnerships, but also connected with new ones through initiatives such as the Covid Collective, Covid Circle and the CORE programme. In the Covid Collective, the initial group of partners involved in the first phase had their own networks and collaborations which they could in turn quickly mobilise, as we heard from Andrea Ordonez about Southern Voice’s experience. We also saw clearly that for evidence to influence policy and practice, relationships matter. There is no linear pathway to policy influence, and it inevitably involves multiple forms of interaction and engagement with different stakeholders. This has been central to the success of the Covid Collective in engaging with an array of different actors, in national, regional and global contexts – as again illustrated by Andrea in her presentation.

Capacity building seems to be an important component of both projects, how would you like to see this built into future research on the impact of the pandemic?

Peter: In general, going forward, there will be a vital need for support to strengthen capacities within the science and research ecosystem in LMICs, alongside investment in research itself. Let’s imagine the research ecosystem as a complex system involving a lot of actors: some are generating the research, some are using the evidence, and there are also many intermediaries, all of whom interact with each other. And many actors fulfil all these functions. Therefore, it’s important to view system strengthening quite holistically. It will be important to work collaboratively with different actors in LMICs to identify those parts of the research system which can use support effectively to catalyse positive change throughout the entire ecosystem. But crucially, that support should not only include capacity strengthening of individuals and institutions, but also support for strengthening of relationships, networks, and movements.

Daniela: That’s right, Peter.  In many people’s eyes, it is not a case of if, but when, we will have the next pandemic or global crisis. Funders and the research community must sustain established networks between epidemics to build capacity and partnerships with local academics and policy stakeholders so that they can be quickly mobilised again. In Dr Caws’s presentation, she made an interesting observation about the challenges to rapid implementation – this being that it was not possible to register all early-career staff for PhDs due to the short-term funding. This was a missed opportunity for capacity development and a lesson we can learn from in terms of developing future funding calls in emergency-related research.

What’s next for COVID CIRCLE and the Covid Collective?

Daniela: We will continue to support our community of researchers and have several community events lined up for the remainder of the year. Watch this space! In terms of our other work in COVID CIRCLE, we have our UKCDR & GloPID-R Covid-19 Research Project Tracker which is updated fortnightly and remains one of the most comprehensive databases of Covid-19-funded projects around the world. In July, we will  also release updates to our Living Mapping Review that takes an in-depth look at the trends, opportunities, and remaining gaps in Covid-19 research.

At the end of the year, we will be publishing an update of our 2021 learning report as we look back over the last 2+ years of the pandemic and outline key lessons and future guidance for research funders, while also including additional analyses of funded research data and some work on research prioritisation. Going forward, we aim for our tracker to link more closely to outputs data and to inspire other tools that go beyond Covid-19 to ensure we are prepared for other diseases with epidemic or pandemic potential. In line with what we’ve discussed today, we also hope to continue finding opportunities to build relationships, collaborate and learn from colleagues across the landscape. On that note, I’d like to thank Peter, IDS and the Covid Collective for the partnership that has brought us here today.

Peter: Thanks to you too, Daniela!

For Covid Collective, we are starting our second phase, and delighted to have an opportunity to continue supporting high-value research and knowledge generation effectively. We also intend to offer clear, evidence-informed messages, options and alternatives for wider audiences, including UK Government; and for targeted policy- and decision-makers on some of the most pressing Covid-19 related development challenges, as well as how these intersect with other critical global challenges. Most importantly, we want to work with our partners to provide compelling, research-based arguments and options for seeing and doing things differently in a pandemic recovery period and beyond. You can keep up to date with Covid Collective news, events, and outputs by subscribing to our monthly newsletter here.

Do you want to know more about these initiatives?

Visit the Covid Collective website

Visit the COVID CIRCLE website

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