Research Article: Challenges in Retaining Research Scientists beyond the Doctoral Level in Kenya

Date Published: March 31, 2009

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Lynette Isabella Ochola, Evelyn Gitau, Simon Brooker

Abstract: None

Partial Text: An important goal of modern-day African governments should be to develop a sustainable research culture in higher education in order to provide human resources and expertise toward better health and scientific national policies. Regrettably, research in Kenya is mainly funded by Northern collaborators, with the Kenyan government spending only 6.2% of total government expenditure on health in 2001 [1], and even less on health-related research. As a result, the local institutions are not carrying out the bulk of research in the country; instead, most research conducted in Kenya is funded by Northern collaborators: for example, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) programs are funded by the Wellcome Trust (United Kingdom), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (United States of America), and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (United States of America). These partnerships have contributed to the changing landscape of research in Kenya, and they continue to play an important role in training local scientists. Ongoing programs and projects culminating from these partnerships have significant components designed to build individual and institutional national capacities in a variety of disciplines at all levels. One of the ways this has been done is to provide postgraduate training to young scientists to the doctoral level both at local and overseas academic institutions. However, the issue of capacity retention following training has not been comprehensively tackled. In this Viewpoint, we highlight three competitive doctoral tracks available in Kenya and how the choices students make ultimately play a role in their search for postdoctoral training. Our Viewpoint is related to A. I. Leshner’s Editorial in Science last year, which focuses on a change in American and British government funding strategies toward new investigators in research [2].

Our first example of training in Kenya at the doctoral level is based on the needs of the researcher’s home institute. In this instance, the institutions use existing collaborations with Northern partners to secure funds to train students to enable technology transfer. This track is mainly project-driven, and at the end of their training young researchers are expected to return to their home institute. At the end of the training, though, there is a lack of an enabling environment: e.g., the laboratory facilities do not support the introduction of cutting-edge technology, therefore the skills that have been acquired cannot be transferred to the South. Moreover, the pay is not commensurate with their training due to the low demand for their new skills and higher qualifications, and hence they may opt to return to the North for better-paying jobs. For example, as a research assistant, the second author trained in a Northern collaborating institute to use de novo technology, with a Ph.D. as an incentive. Like other scientists found in this position, she opted to change an aspect of her research to advance her postdoctoral training in the local institutes upon her return. Both authors have also found that on returning to local institutions, there is pressure to become an independently funded scientist either immediately after receiving their Ph.D. or after their first postdoctoral position, without adequate exposure and mentorship.

The importance of training beyond the Ph.D. level has been underscored by the emphasis on and amount of financial support from Northern funding agencies for scientific capacity building. There is still room for improvement such that the postdoctoral training available contributes to the national research agenda. It is, therefore, important to remember the fundamental difference in the health burdens suffered by the North and South, and thus it is not possible for research and training priorities to be the same. For example, Northern institutes tend to work on a few major tropical diseases, while the South gives priority to preventive medicine and health difficulties related to environment and nutrition [3]. Kenya must emphasize research and prioritize the role of science in development. For poignant reminders of the role we need to play, one only need look at the staggering national statistics of the major causes of mortality as of 2002: malaria (5%), HIV/AIDS (38%), tuberculosis (5%), and diarrheal diseases (7%) [4]. This alone should cause us to make the critical quantum leap in our mindsets, whereby solutions to Kenya’s health problems are not only initiated from the North but are also Kenyan-born.

Local scientists should create research questions from the needs of society so as to feed into national policy, contribute to national health research systems, and address public health challenges. For developing countries, the process of embedding research into their health systems requires competent local scientists and a strongly supportive and enabling environment that will allow research communities to grow and deliver research goods that contribute to the health of the public [8]. One way to do this would be to identify research needs in our community in such a way as to help us develop into individual research scientists. Our training within our North–South institutions is not solely a way of empowering ourselves while isolating ourselves from our community. Instead, we should be leaders ready to bring up the next generation of scientists.

This is the infrastructure that will enable local research science to be preserved and empowered. National institutions are the enabling environment within which to train up, mentor, and produce the next leaders in science in the country. The leaders in these establishments should debunk inferiority or superiority complexes to allow room for development for all levels of scientists. Therefore, they should be flexible and accommodate the new wave of energized and excited younger scientists wanting to be involved in leading the national science agenda. Crucially, the institutions should demand and exercise the highest level and quality of research by having research-driven curricula and well-defined career structures. This can be realised if the government funds newly trained fellows to carry out research in higher education institutions. It will also encourage the higher education facility to become the initiation point for the maintenance and sustenance of world-class national research. For example, in the United Kingdom the National Health Service funds research in universities, hence driving the national research agenda that feeds into health policy. Additionally, a way to encourage research growth and funding in the universities is through collaborations between universities and research institutes or industry in the form of joint appointments of research fellows.

Research capacity remains an unmet challenge in the South [9]. This is especially true for sub-Saharan Africa, where health research in most countries has an allocation of less than 0.5% of national health budgets and health budgets are funded with less than 1% of gross domestic product [8]. Additionally, research and development (R&D) intensity (R&D expenditure relative to the size of the national economy) in Kenya is generally <0.3% [10]. The Kenyan government needs to not only realize but also follow through on their commitment to R&D by increasing their financial input into local scientists' research interests and involving them in achieving national R&D goals. Financing of scientists will enable the development of national research and promote and improve the national health agenda. The South bears the greatest burden of the world's infectious diseases, and they need to take a lead role in finding appropriate solutions. Currently, the face of research is changing in Kenya and Africa. Since there is now a well-trained scientific human resource base, we are in a better position than ever before to meet the health challenges of our nation (recommendations are highlighted in Box 2). The training achieved in the North should help enhance the quality and amount of research being carried out in Kenya. Kenya and Africa as a whole should emulate developing countries—such as Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, Malaysia, China, India, and Thailand—which are already investing in science, have developed mechanisms to promote excellence in research [11], and have successfully managed to translate knowledge received in the North into thriving self-sustaining national research programs. Source:


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