Kofi’s Cheese Project: Tools for negotiating fairer research partnerships

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SPEED READ

– The Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED) today launched Phase 2 of its Fair Research Contracting (FRC) Initiative, aimed at identifying best practices for negotiating equitable collaborative research partnerships that could help build sustainable research and innovation systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

– Phase 2 outputs include guidance notes presented in a checklist format to allow researchers to work through key issues within important areas of research contracting; a guidance booklet aimed at addressing the ‘softer’ skills of negotiation, in order to prepare those inexperienced in research contracting for the reality of the negotiating process; and a cartoon entitled Kofi’s cheese project.

– “This new guidance provides straightforward advice about steps to take to make sure that the opportunities which collaborative health research presents to institutions are maximised, especially where contracting capacity is limited or absent”, said Danny Edwards, Programme Manager, Fair Research Contracting Initiative.

– Plans are underway for COHRED Colloquium 4, at the Wellcome Trust, London, United Kingdom, in the near future, which will look at designing a Fairness index for International Collaborative Health Research. The Colloquium is co-hosted by the Wellcome Trust.

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Getting to fairer research contracts 2.0

Collaborative health research has grown significantly in recent years, not only in terms of quantity, but also as for complexity of study design and geographical distribution. This has increasingly involved multi-centre collaboration, with research institutions based in high-income countries (HICs) seeking to establish partnerships with institutions in LMICs. But while HIC partners are usually fully aware of intellectual property rights and know how to maximize the benefit of research for their institutions, such knowledge is less present in LMICs generally, and in Africa particularly. This asymmetry can severely limit LMICs’ power to negotiate favourable contracts and achieve equitable allocation of benefits of research to participating institutions and individuals. Consequently, international research partnerships risk missing opportunities to build research and innovation capacity and national development.

Last year, about this time, COHRED launched a new guidance document on fair contract negotiation in collaborative research partnerships, thanks to funding from the NWO Science for Global Development Programme (WOTRO). This was part of a broader initiative aimed at identifying best practices for the research contracting (negotiation) process that could help build sustainable research and innovation in LMICs. The guidance was developed particularly for contexts where there may be no lawyer or legal expertise, or where these might be present but associated with limited capacity.

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Although “[t]he issue of inequitable research partnerships is not new …… previous work has not addressed the crucial role that equitable contracts play in defining the nature of research collaborations, in building the foundations for successful long-term partnerships, and in enhancing the research systems of LMICs. The essential difference in our guidance document is that it attempts to shift control over negotiating research benefits to the LMIC partner, instead of reliance on the good intentions of the high income country partner,” wrote COHRED’s Debbie Marais and Carel IJsselmuiden in the Lancet Global Health blog.

Following the great success of the guidance, COHRED FRC Initiative is now entering ‘Phase 2’.

New FRC tools launched in June

With the support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, five more accessible guidance notes have been established in a checklist format, to allow researchers in organisations with limited contracting capacity to systematically work through the key issues involved in the key problematic areas of research contracting:

  • Fair research contracting
  • Intellectual property
  • Data ownership
  • Technology transfer and system optimisation
  • Indirect costs

Each of these guidance notes includes key questions to consider, a case study, a list of relevant tips/lessons, and an indication of where to look for additional information.

“This new guidance provides straightforward advice about steps to take to make sure that the opportunities which collaborative health research presents to institutions are maximised, especially where contracting capacity is limited or absent”, said Danny Edwards, Programme Manager, Fair Research Contracting Initiative.

Another practical output of the second FRC phase has been the development of a guidance booklet aimed at addressing the ‘softer’ skills of negotiation, presented through a series of vignettes/case studies to prepare those inexperienced in research contracting for the reality of the negotiating process. This new enabling document is organized to cover the three stages of the negotiation process, based upon the lifecycle of a research contract: pre-contract negotiations, contract, and post-contract.

“We also wanted to provide guidance to assist in the ‘softer’ skills of negotiation – how to engage with your negotiation partner to get the best results for your organisation. To us, and to researchers we spoke to, this was viewed as just as important as understanding the technicalities of a research contract,” said Jacintha Toohey, Project Assistant on the Fair Research Contracting Initiative.

The guidance booklet frames the issue like this within the introduction:  “Key to understanding negotiation is appreciating that: Simply because something arrives in a pro-forma contract, it does not mean it is non-negotiable. With the right approach, many things can be negotiated; A mutually beneficial relationship means that partners enter negotiations with mutual respect and balanced power. This is particularly important when partners might appear to be different levels of bargaining power.”

Last but by no means least; a super nice cartoon – the story of Kofi the mouse and its cheese project – has been produced to disseminate the project outputs even further. The rationale for this choice is grounded on the increasing use of cartoons as a winning communication strategy to effectively convey ‘serious’ messages to a more diverse audience.

What next?

This new set of guidance is just the next step in the Fair Research Contracting Initiative’s plans. In the next phase, we will be transforming our contracting support into a web-based decision support system. In the meantime, we welcome feedback on how we can further improve these tools.

In addition, plans are well underway for COHRED Colloquium 4, at the Wellcome Trust, London, to be held in London, United Kingdom, in the near future, which will look at designing a Fairness index for International Collaborative Health Research. The Colloquium is co-hosted by the Wellcome Trust.

Colloquium 4 will bring together decision-makers from all the sectors engaged in global research and innovation for health to design an innovative research-based index to boost multi-stakeholder research collaborations by taking into account the expectations of fairness of all the partners.

Regrettably, now that this ‘finish line’ has been reached, Danny Edwards is now moving on from this project to take on a fresh challenge at another organisation. Golbahar Pahlavan has joined COHRED in the meantime, and will be looking after Colloquium 4 amongst other responsibilities. Jacintha Toohey will continue to work and support the team in helping to make research contracts fairer.

Danny Edwards, Golbahar Pahlavan, Jacintha Toohey and Carel IJsselmuiden