MRC funding for Public Health Research in South Africa: Managerialism in research drifting to an unsustainable model?

Funding for Public Health oriented research in South Africa, through agencies such as the MRC, has long played an important, if limited, role in promoting public health research.

However, it seems to me that changes over the past few years to the way the MRC operates its extra-mural funding programmes, appears to have introduced elements that, while seemingly intended to increase the efficiency of MRC funding, will have the effect of severely compromising the extent to which public health research can benefit from MRC funding. I would be interested to hear what other PHASA members' experience is in this regard.

As illustration, I list some examples below:

  • MRC funding rules severely cap the amount of funds that can be used for salary costs. The severe limits on spending on salary mean that researchers who are not supported by core funding from their institution are unable to cover their own time on MRC funded projects. This assumes a model in which researchers have full time jobs and can undertake research using MRC funding only for operational costs. For most research institutions, sustainable core funding of researcher posts is a myth. The most successful research units have typically built large and successful research programmes on the back of grants that cover staff salary costs. Yet the MRC funding appears to ignore the reality of how public health research has grown and requires support for core functions, particularly researcher salaries.
  • MRC funding rules introduced incrementally over the past few years have also severely constrained how MRC funds can be used for operational costs – for example, by capping the amount of funds that can be used for field research staff costs or local travel. While laboratory or clinical research may well be able to thrive under such spending rules, most public health research, based on population studies, are essentially dependent on human resources in the field and logistic costs such as travel. Capping permitted expenditure on these items is a serious obstacle for public health research, since the one-size fits all approach by the MRC systematically disadvantages population-based studies which are not capital nor equipment intensive and which do not rely on students for data collection.
  • A submission made in terms of a recent MRC call for proposals was met with a response from the MRC office that the applicant was disqualified because of not having a PhD. Notwithstanding the fact that the particular researcher involved has a strong track record of publication and grant raising, the assumption behind this response is that a PhD is seen as a sine qua non for a research track record. Yet the reality in public health is that many active public health practitioners only undertake PhD studies in mid-career, having already had considerable research and practice experience. Unlike the world of lab sciences, where a PhD is the starting point for a research career, a PhD in the public health environment is often part of unfolding career trajectory. The MRC view about who is an 'experienced' researcher is both archaic and systematically disadvantages public health researchers.
  • Lastly, MRC spending rules impose considerable administrative burden on recipient institutions. Grant holders are expected to report twice a year, and to keep to very particular expenditure caps as they implement their projects. All of these requirements need administrative support. Yet MRC funding precludes institutions from taking administrative overhead. While not a particularly unique problem for public health research, this contradiction does add to the unattractiveness of MRC funding as a meaningful source of financial support for important public health projects.

To me, these changes reflect a growth in managerialism in the research environment. Tightening of financial controls would be unproblematic if they were solely intended to make sure funds were not wasted, or if they led to improved research outcomes. But it seems to me that the consequences of the managerialist ethos in MRC funding will not improve the quality of research, and may, in fact, result in the converse. They are also, to my mind, systematically disadvantaging research in the public health field. I would be keen to hear others' opinions and raise these points to stimulate a debate about what our funding agencies should be doing differently if public health research is going to thrive. If there is sufficient evidence that there is a systemic problem out there, perhaps it is time PHASA took up the issue and lobbied for a better deal for public health research through more responsive institutional support from national funders.

Note that the opinions expressed in this article are from the author, and PHASA does not necessarily agree with these.

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