Globally, universities carry out the noble duty of generating new knowledge in form of research output in addition to disseminating knowledge and bringing forth innovations which positively impacts the society. According to a 2018 report on state of Research funding in Kenyan Universities by CPS Research International, research remains a key social, economic and political pillar without which no meaningful and sustainable development can be achieved in the modern world. During this COVID-19 period, the world holds its breath as it waits to receive good news from researchers on the confirmation of a vaccine. Governments are looking up to epidemiologists and other professionals, a lot of them based in the universities, to advise on how best to wade through the challenges presented by the novel coronavirus.
Appreciating the importance of research in the society and the pivotal role played by higher education in generating knowledge must be taken seriously. The research office is charged with the responsibility of steering this process. In a typical Kenyan university set up, the main role of a research office is to drive the research agenda in the institution and provide strategic framework in which an institution’s research operates. The research office is headed by a Director of Research or the research registrar who reports to a Deputy Vice Chancellor in charge of research or academic affairs. While this may differ from one University to another, the responsibilities research office may handle includes providing institutional endorsement for partnerships and sponsorships for the university, ensuring proposal’s and contracts’ compliance with the University policies and donor’s conditions and researcher’s capacity development among many others.
Universities in Kenya have continued to experience budget cuts especially with the 2016/2017 reforms in higher education which led to reduced numbers of students enrolling in Universities. The abolishment of the Module 2 enrollments seriously affected the income streams in both private and public Universities. In 2020, there is the COVID-19 induced closure, which has of course affected revenue from students’ fees besides a reduced budget due to the constrained economy and funds being re-directed to COVID-19 related activities both at national and institutional level. In many institutions, research office budget has taken a direct and painful hit with some having to suspend essential programs like training.
Keeping in mind that Research output for an institution has a direct impact of its performance, it is only prudent that University managers approach the issue with caution. Research output and publications have a direct impact on a University ranking among its peers which consequently has an effect on its capacity to attract external funding and collaborations. I urge that this is the time to invest wisely on faculty’s capacity development to help them upskill and put them in a position that can give them confidence to win and participate in bigger research projects and collaborations. Research funding is now more than ever biased towards multidisciplinary, collaborative research. Universities that can take advantage and use the bit of free time available to their researchers now due to the lock downs to upskill them on topics such as grant writing, collaboration and publishing will definitely reap big.
COVID-19 has presented unique opportunities for researchers globally: The closure of institutions has left the faculty with some free time for engaging in research, similarly, a considerable amount of funding has been directed to research through new calls in almost all areas of research, health being the biggest beneficiary. Institutions such as the UK Research and innovation (UKRI) has allowed those with ongoing projects to redirect to COVID-19 related research. For those institutions that have not taken time to developed a strategy to tapping into COVID-19 funding, they may have lost a great opportunity although there is still time to re-engage. There shall still be more research needs post-COVID.
Though on a small scale compared to peers elsewhere, Universities in Africa are also taking a leading role in providing solutions during this pandemic. The University of Wits in South Africa has partnered with Novavax, a biotech company based in Maryland USA to produce a COVID-19 vaccine which is in phase 2 of its trial. In Kenya, The University of Nairobi has been running a regularly updated blog on COVID-19 related output while we have seen severally, members of faculty in our universities contributing their knowledge on the media. The potential for our researchers is huge and must continue to be harnessed.
As Universities grapple with reduced budgets, one of the offices that require not to be put on the back-burner is the research office. This is the one office that is supposed to generate the University’s output in the name of publication and outreach. It is supposed to directly bring income to the University through grants and generate knowledge that which impacts the performance of its graduates. Even if the University does not have enough money to run its own internal grants program let there be enough budget to equip faculty and researchers with skills to fend for themselves in the global grants market place; empower them via training on grant writing, publishing and collaborations, support them to attend conferences (now happening online) and networking activities in addition to exposing them to research opportunities in their areas of study.
Joseph Njogu is the CEO of Research Beeline Ltd, he can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org