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The scientific and grant writing workshop at the 5th AfHEA conference in Accra: Only a drop in the ocean or the start of a great health research capacity journey?

In recent years, Universal health coverage (UHC) has gained political momentum in sub-Saharan African countries. Although countries acknowledge that starting points aredifferent and respective journeys to UHC context-specific, the “how to” needs further elaboration. Hence the importance ofcontextualised evidence to provide tailored answers to inform planning, policy decisions and resource allocation.  Generation of (more) local evidence calls for strengthened national health research systems. However, the low health research capacity in many sub-Saharan African countries remains a concern andAfrica’s contribution to the global health research output is still meagre. Even if there has been some progress in recent years,Africa produced only 1.3% of the global health research publications in 2014.  It is against this backdrop that the WHO Regional Office for Africa (WHO AFRO) in collaboration with the African Health Economics and Policy Association (AfHEA)organised a workshop on scientific and grant writing for African early career researchers and professionals in health systems and policy, as a pre-conference to the 5th AfHEA scientific conference, on 10th March 2019 – in Accra, GhanaAfHEA and WHO AFRO share the objective of building and sustaininghealth research capacity in Africa. This was reiterated by Dr.Chris Atim (AfFEA’s Executive Director), during the opening ceremony – “We started AfHEA a decade ago to achieve 2 core missions: to build the capacity of Africans to attain high quality standards in research and practice, and secondly to promote the use of research evidence in decision making for the health sector in Africa.”

The scientific and grant writing workshop sought to provide a platform to train African early career researchers andpractitioners on scientific writing for publication and grants. The workshop was attended by 48 participants from 8 countries in Africa and facilitated by experts in scientific writing, grant preparation and literature review. This built onto an(other)innovation by AfHEA, again as part of this conference, wherebyyoung researchers (who submitted abstracts for the conference) were paired with mentors to help them improve their data analysis and presentations prior to the AfHEA conference.Through this initiative, 17 young researchers improved their papers (which would have otherwise been rejected) and made presentations in the conference.

Dr. Seye Abimbola, the Editor-in-Chief of BMJ Global Health and Research Fellow at University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, shared insights on scientific writing with participants from the perspective of editors of peer-reviewed journals. His talk covered the basics of writing a scientific paper including the style, structure and other fundamentals of good writing. He emphasized that “editors are drawn to papers that are clearly and engagingly written; they often gravitate towards topics that are trending and important, original, convincing, well-structured and obviously exciting cfr. a ‘wow’ effect”). Using the IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion) format, he took participants through the basics of scientific writing, and explained how to write an informative and engaging abstract – the abstract should serve as an appetiser to draw in an editor or the audience towards reading the paper. A scientific paper starts with the generation of ideas which can be drawn from both personal and professional experiences, and Dr.Seye emphasised the need for early career researchers and professionals to read widely in order to keep abreast of current debates and discussions within their areas of interest and expertise. This will help them ‘know what editors of their favourite journals want.” Seye shared many other valuable tips & tricks during the session.

At the opening ceremony, Dr John Ataguba, (AfHEA’’s Deputy Executive Director) encouraged the young scientists never to give up, noting that – “The first thing you face as a researcher is rejection; even Nobel Prize winners experienced rejection in the early days of their career. But rejection rates will decline as you grow as a researcher. As a young researcher, be ready to accept rejections from journal editors. Do not despair; my papers were also rejected in my early days as a researcher.” 

Dr. Justice Nonvignon, (University of Ghana) then took charge of the session, ‘Guide for preparing and making a funding case for a research proposal’ which was co-developed with Prof. Obinna Onwujekwe (University of Nigeria). The presentation covered the fundamentals of grant/research proposals, components of a good research proposal, crafting the rationale, research questions and objectives of a grant proposal;and was substantiated with practical experiences from Prof Echezona Ezeanolue who has successfully written, won and implemented research/project grants. 

Dr. Ama Pokuaa Fenny (University of Ghana) took participants through a session on ‘Literature Review for Scientific Writing’ which covered the purpose and role of literature reviews, how to organize a literature review into themes, as well as how to successfully synthesize the findings of the review and identify relationships among different studies.She emphasized that “a well-articulated research question/s help(s) to steer and drive the literature review process, and by extension, the conceptual framework that shows the relationships between key variables and outcomes”. A good literature review should help a researcher undertake 4 key tasks: summarize, synthesize, critique and compare the findings from all the relevant studies or papers reviewed.

The all-day workshop ended on a high note with participants expressing their appreciation to AfHEA and WHO AFRO for providing them with this professionaldevelopment opportunity at no cost to them. Through a partnership with BMJ, participants were also given access to BMJ’s highly resourceful “Research to Publication” e-learning programme  to help users design, conduct and report on research that journal editors will want to publish. It was developed by BMJ and University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) for doctors and healthcare researchers, particularly early in their career, and comprises eight courses/modules. In addition to the workshop, participants had one-on-one counselling sessionswith the BMJ Global Health editor-in-chief to review draft papers or concepts they are currently working on.

One may argue that this is only a drop in the ocean, but we view it differently and state that this is a good start. We build on what we know works and try to avoid previous failures.  Emphasis will be on harnessing and ensuring sustainability of all good initiatives, as much as possible. Following the scientific and grant writing workshop, senior researchers serving as mentors will continue to work with the trainees up to publication of their papers in scientific journals, as part of the AfHEAmentorship program. In addition, we will maintain these bondsand transform them into a network of young scientists for peer support. Galvanising other (similar) initiatives is also important at this stage to realise a bigger impact. For example, the European and Developing countries clinical trials partnership has invested significantly in building health research capacity in Africa and currently already boasts 34 health research networks of excellence. Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA) is another regional initiative supporting capacity building & theundertaking of health research in 8 countries in Africa.  All these efforts need to be harnessed to enhance and accumulate capacity and effectiveness for health research in Africa.

What do we aspire to achieve in the medium term? Perhaps several objectives, amongst others evidence informed decision making and planning, (more) efficient use of resources and as such ‘more health for the money’, …. For the ones among you who want it a bit more poetically, we further seek to light more candles and subsequently have numerous stars lighting up the sky, regarding health research in Africa.  

Poor quality evidence has been cited repeatedly as a bottleneck to evidence informed decision making in sub-Sahara Africa and elsewhere. It is our hope that, through these initiatives, strengthened African health research capacity and stronger national health research systems will indeed generate good quality and contextualized evidence to guide decision making on the path towards UHC. 

About Juliet Nabyonga-Orem

Health Systems and Services Cluster; World Health Organization, Inter-Country Support Team for Eastern & Southern Africa; P.O Box CY 348; Causeway, Harare, Zimbabwe

About Daniel Malik Achala

Research Officer; African Health Economics & Policy Association, Origin8 Building, No. 8 Blohum Street, Dzorwulu, P.O. Box 8629, Cantonments, Accra, Ghana

About Felix Abrahams Obi

Communications & Media Relations Officer; African Health Economics & Policy Association (AfHEA). Senior Program Officer, Results for Development Institute (R4D), Nigeria Office, Abuja Nigeria.
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