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A different (research) world

In my last post a few months ago, I mentioned that I was disconnecting from the safety of my Australian office and heading to Ghana to look for opportunities to develop some research projects. This experience has certainly been everything I hoped it would – exciting and challenging – but like most research I have had to deal with a share of frustration and disappointment. What I have learnt the most in this time, however, has been about differences in research culture between the two countries.

When I travel, I usually get a kick out of being in a place where the traditions, culture, and day-to-day life are different to home. Indeed, this is probably one of the main reasons I enjoy travelling. What I hadn’t realised before this trip is that experiencing these differences when on holiday is very different to experiencing them at a professional level. I have been to Africa on holiday previously and can deal with few luxuries. I can live without hot showers, I can wash my clothes by hand, and I can even handle regular power cuts. Easy. But when it comes to research, I found myself stumped without some basic necessities.

Having organised to meet a few friendly academics at the University of Ghana, they informed me that while they are not experts in research, they recognise its importance and expressed a desire to improve. They have already made it a necessity for every undergraduate (physiotherapy) student to perform their own small research project. I was immediately impressed and thought I had struck an untapped research gold mine. However, after reading some of the research reports produced by the students, I noticed a few glaring inadequacies in both methodology and rationale. I started realising the value of having an experienced researcher available to cast a critical eye over both the research question and process. While these were valiant efforts at producing some relevant research findings, most of these students had entered into the world of research blindly and with very few resources.

I discovered that very little of the teaching is done using up-to-date practices and students have very little experience searching for, reading, and using journal articles. To me, this was the most striking research necessity that was lacking. I was informed that due to poor funding of the university the library services did not allow for subscriptions to journals! So the students were limited to using dated textbooks and the few accessible articles on the internet as their primary sources of information. As someone who relishes in scouring internet databases and frustrating librarians by ordering obscure foreign language articles for my systematic reviews, I was shocked.

Further discussions with the academics continued to force me into rethinking my research plans. For example, while there are large scale HIV and malaria projects currently underway there are very few national schemes for funding research in other areas. Despite being mostly interested in musculoskeletal and sports injury research, the academics I spoke to had started applying for funding in HIV research (luckily they have had some success and can hope to use any extra funds for other research). The larger research projects are often instigated by institutes and universities in Europe and the US, which allows for well-funded laboratories (better quality than those used for local health care services!) and a steady stream of international research students collecting data.

However, little recognition is provided to local academics or students and unfortunately funding does not flow into the local universities for research projects outside of the scope of these large multi-national studies.

In addition to all of this, producing research is of less importance to many of the academics in Ghana than it is for those in Australia. Teaching is till the main focus of the universities as they attempt to qualify people for key positions in the health system, rather than compete for funding or recognition. Without this focus, there are very few experienced researchers and little discussion about improving the overall state of research. With little to no mentoring available, scarce funding, and other obstacles, it seems more and more that performing research is a luxury rather than a necessity. Building a research culture in a country or institute is a long process but through international collaboration and carefully planned directions, it can improve not only local academic life but science on a global scale.

Nevertheless, as my colleagues say - we must do the best we can with what we have. With the little resources available, there is a push to present research studies at international conferences to gain exposure and meet potential collaborators. Publication is highly regarded and while it is regularly achieved in small national journals, some of the better projects are slowly finding their way into reputable journals. I have tried to lend some expertise to helping these articles get published as well as reading grant applications and student projects. By starting a few small research projects, I am hoping this experience will not only develop my view of research as a career but may plant the seed for bigger things to grow in the future.