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The true cost of doing research in African institutions

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The true cost of doing research in African institutions

allen MAllen Muyaama Mukhwana is the Research Systems Manager at the African Academy of Sciences (AAS). She leads the Research Management Programme in Africa (ReMPro Africa), an AAS programme, which seeks to build the expertise necessary to create and sustain robust research enterprise and environments by addressing systemic level challenges at African institutions. ReMPro Africa is implemented through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a funding, agenda setting, programme management initiative of the AAS in partnership with the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and with the support of Wellcome, United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO formerly DFID)), the Royal Society, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the UK Department of Health and Social Care (UK-DHSC).


Africa lags behind the rest of the world in research and development, producing less than 1% of the worlds research output (according to this World Bank report). To address this gap, research institutions need to develop robust research environments to support and retain scientists on the continent and increase research productivity. Access to adequate funding is essential to boosting research and development in Africa.

Research institutions grapple with stalled or extended projects because their researchers underestimate the full cost of doing research. It is widely accepted that for most research projects, full costs include both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are costs that can be obviously attributed to the project e.g. recruitment of patients, procurement of equipment to run specific experiments, etc. , while indirect costs are costs that are incurred by the institution in support of project activities for instance, maintenance of  air conditioning system to improve the air quality in many laboratories and offices in one building, managing finance and grants, security, etc.

Many institutions often do not know the true costs of doing research because they have not undertaken comprehensive cost accounting. It is crucial to correctly calculate both direct and indirect costs in proposals, because without recovering these costs, it is difficult, if not impossible to sustain the infrastructure and excellence of any research enterprise. Recovering the full and real costs of research is necessary to maintain operations, from literally keeping the lights on, to ensuring procurement of state-of-the-art experimental equipment.

ReMPro Africa collaborated with ESSENCE on Health Research to revise the essential document on research management called “Five Keys to Improving Research Costing and Pricing in Low-and-Middle Income Countries”.

The document is a useful tool for universities and research institutions to; improve relations with funders, understand funder terminology, provide costing and transparency in pricing for research and optimize the recouping of indirect costs; also known as; ’overhead costs’, ‘finance and administration costs’, or ‘non-project attributable costs’.

The Five Keys offers research institutions and funders guidance on calculating, managing and recovering research costs. This document is particularly useful for:

  • Institutional leaders, including chief executives, vice chancellors and deputy vice chancellors.
  • Programme directors and programme officers, including research directors and funder programme leaders.
  • Research managers, including grants managers, finance managers, project accountants, project coordinators, learning and development managers;
  • Researchers, including principal investigators, mid-career and emerging researchers.

Integrity is essential for all aspects of the research ecosystem including collecting and analyzing data, research collaboration, scholarly communication, allocating and managing research funding. The five keys on costing and pricing guide contributes to research integrity by guiding research managers on how to calculate cost, price transparently and to justify cost requests so that institutions are accountable to their funders. Transparency provides reassurance to funders and is therefore a potential leverage to applicants in negotiations. Funders rates on indirect costs often fall short of actual costs to be incurred; in such cases institutions should be able to, at a minimum, demonstrate that the difference is an institutional in-kind contribution to the research project.

Dedicated and trained research management staff must be integrated into institutional research budgets to ensure full and successful research funding throughout the research cycle, including the identification of funding, proposal development, full cost accounting, through to research uptake. Expenditure on research management is sometimes perceived as compromising the funds available for research itself, but it can in fact set up a virtuous cycle, enabling comprehensive support of researchers, who will then improve their productivity and hence attract more funding. For this reason, supporting the full cost of research through proper research management is essential for a research programme to flourish.

The “Five Keys” guide considers the contribution of recovering indirect costs to the development of wider research capacity. It outlines methods to calculate costs, the differences between costing and pricing, strategies for negotiation with funding bodies and institutional mechanisms for distributing reimbursed indirect cost payments. It also highlights the necessity to support the research management functions from indirect costs as a sustainability model.

ReMPro Africa is using the “Five Keys” guides to develop costing and pricing models as tools that institutions can adapt and implement to calculate indirect costs of research, and account for such payments as part of the cost of conducting quality research.