|Food and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 18, Number 2, 1997 (UNU Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 1997, 118 pages)|
Research is essential for the sustained improvement of the nutritional situation of all countries, regardless of developmental status. Sound research is the only tool for the identification of nutritional problems and their causes, the demonstration of their importance to a country's development, the formulation of solutions, and the evaluation of progress.
Unfortunately, the capacity of national and regional academic and research institutions to respond to research needs in human nutrition is seriously limited. Limitations in research capacity relate to a lack of both adequate facilities and appropriately trained professionals. The most pressing need appears to be in category II, as defined in the discussions of professional pyramids. In some regions, particularly Asia and Latin America, there are well-established institutions that deal with nutrition, but even these report gaps in available expertise. In Africa there are very few institutions with any measurable research capacity in nutrition.
The principal objectives of increasing research capacity are to strengthen the ability to respond to national and regional research needs, increase the proportion of nutrition research conducted by national or regional institutions, and augment the level of input of research conducted within a region or country in the identification and solution of the nutritional problems of most national and regional significance.
Realization of these objectives should lead to the development of self-sustaining departments, institutes, and schools of nutrition capable of conducting research and training future researchers in the region. It has been demonstrated that with a strong commitment, building an academic department where none exists can be done within 10 years. But in institutions where established departments need strengthening in limited areas, the time frame is much shorter.
To accomplish these objectives, the Working Group affirmed the need to develop research centres of excellence in institutions that closely link the research mission to educational and training missions. The Working Group found that the quality control, disciplinary breadth, and relative permanence that characterize academic institutions of higher learning present a compelling case in favour of strategies that concentrate resources in units that either exist within such academic institutions or have clear ties to them.
Furthermore, the Working Group recognized that limitations in available resources and the requirement for a critical mass of professionals make it imperative that resources be concentrated in a few highly selected academic or research institutions in each region. Among the recommended criteria for the selection of regional centres of excellence are a demonstrated institutional commitment to problem-oriented research in human nutrition, political and economic stability, and a demonstrated willingness and ability to serve regional needs.
Each research centre should have a multidisciplinary orientation, in keeping with the breadth of disciplines required to address most nutrition problems. Nonetheless, each unit should develop its own area of specialization. This expertise should be linked closely to the areas of education and training targeted by the institution. Thus, collaboration within and between regions is essential, because no single institution can have the requisite research capacity in all fields that contribute to the solution of nutrition problems.
Developing research capacity may be accomplished in various ways. Whatever approaches may be taken to develop this capacity, careful consideration should be given to the disciplinary and interdisciplinary breadth and complementary specialization required for dealing with food and nutrition issues. The most common approach for the formation of future faculty and researchers is through graduate and postgraduate training in universities or other institutions where the desired expertise and multidisciplinary breadth exist. An additional, highly desirable component of advanced training is the preferential support of newly trained researchers as an important follow-up of doctoral and postdoctoral training. Such support is strongly encouraged. It may take the form of peer-reviewed programmes specially designed for new graduates. It is recommended that training programmes be research based and that the research be conducted in the country to which the trainee will return.
A second approach is a more targeted, "hands-on" experience that relies on the development of mentoring relationships and faculty exchanges. Enhancing research capacity through the improvement of highly specific skills may be accomplished through less formal approaches or any of the short-term training approaches discussed earlier.
Another essential component of building research capacity is the development of relevant research agendas. For this discussion it is useful to differentiate between basic and applied research: basic research is research undertaken for its own sake, that is, it is not directed at any specific problem; applied research is directed at a specific problem of interest to one or more stakeholder groups. The Working Group did not discuss basic research programmes, beyond recognizing the key role such activities play in science.
Applied research agendas should set priorities on the basis of the significance of present and projected problems specific to countries and/or regions. Thus, researchers, planners, policy makers, and representatives of those that are affected by the problems of interest and projected solutions must participate in priority-setting. Nonetheless, whatever the priority-setting process may be, it must permit investigator-initiated creativity to flourish. Creative thinking provides innovative solutions that are not necessarily obtained by following traditional approaches. Freedom to question and criticize should never be disallowed by priority-setting exercises.
Institutions in developing and developed countries often are inclined to adopt research agendas set solely by government agencies or donor-defined priorities. Although this inclination may seem advantageous, it is usually unwise unless those priorities both address national and regional needs and enhance the development of the institution's research capacity.
The following recommendations were adopted by the Working Group:
» Individual institutions are encouraged to examine the focus and content of their advanced training programmes to identify areas that require strengthening. Such reviews should be facilitated by the approaches proposed by the Working Group that take into account the disciplinary and interdisciplinary breadth required for dealing with contemporary food and nutrition issues. The publication of the Workshop proceedings was recommended as a useful aid to this review.
» Programme descriptions, syllabi, and other similar materials gathered in the preparation of these reviews should be compiled by the UNU. Furthermore, specific institutions should be recruited to gather these materials for their region and for the development of mechanisms for sharing these materials with training institutions worldwide. This effort is intended to serve as a first step towards the establishment of mutual support structures for enhancing globally the effectiveness of advanced professional training in nutrition.
» The Working Group recommends that the UNU and IUNS survey advanced nutrition training institutes to determine the level of knowledge and skills of their faculty and professional staff in specific areas and their capacities for research at national, regional, and international levels. This survey will complement the recommended institutional reviews and aid in building a strong foundation for the identification and establishment of networks of collaborating institutions for advanced training.
» The Workshop concluded that the need for cross-disciplinary breadth and functional depth is addressed most effectively by identifying a core body of knowledge, skills, and attitudes and a variety of functional specialities. A tabulation of core knowledge and skills was drafted by Workshop participants for consideration by the broader academic community. Definition of the relevant bodies of knowledge and skills required by various functional specialities is proposed as a follow-up activity that should be undertaken by the UNU and IUNS in collaboration with institutions with recognized strengths in specific functional specialities.
» The Working Group recommends that the IUNS hold a symposium or workshop at its 1997 international conference in Montreal to inform others more fully of this Workshop held in Manila, invite a wider participation in the development of approaches discussed at this Workshop, and promote the implementation of specific programmes for the improvement of advanced training.
» Countries are encouraged to develop goals of the numbers of persons needed at each level of advanced training in food and nutrition similar to the guidelines developed in the consideration of national training pyramids. These goals should be based on each country's developmental needs, the nature of the food and nutrition problems that each confronts, and organizational structures, functions, and interactions of the spectrum of personnel that are engaged in nutrition-related activities in both governmental and non-governmental units.
» The UNU and IUNS are encouraged to assist in the development of goals for advanced training by countries where undernutrition continues to have the greatest impact on the survival of its citizens. Whenever possible, regional networks should be recruited to assist in the development of these goals and in planning for their implementation and regular evaluation.
» The UNU and IUNS are encouraged to explore mechanisms for fostering the development of regional institutional networks through the innovative use of new modes of electronic communications, distance learning, and videoconferencing.
» The UNU and IUNS are encouraged to develop criteria and a process for selecting academic or research institutions to be targeted for capacity-building within regions. The adhering bodies of the IUNS should be invited to assist in these capacity-building efforts and in the formation of consortia to assist with the resources needed for capacity-building. The Working Group stressed that capacity-building requires a strong commitment from the institutions' home governments and administrative structure and should not be undertaken without it. The consortia should be composed of national, regional, and international members.