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Strengthening capacity building of local researchers in Papua New Guinea

Authors:
  • Pohnpei State Hospital & PNG Research Outreach Inc

Abstract

Research expands knowledge and information for development. This paper is an informal survey assessing the state of institutional infrastructure that facilitates the advancement of Papua New Guinean researchers within PNG and discusses the challenges that limit opportunities for training and development. Some factors that could improve research capacity are; (1) Building a common view to support local researchers among in-country stakeholders, (2) Research and higher education leadership vested in creating opportunities for training from undergraduate to higher degree levels (3) Activate and expand funding schemes to provide assistance to student researchers and build institutional capacity and (4) Promote activities that strengthen research culture such as academic publishing which has declined. While international collaborations have assisted PNG greatly in developing research to current standards, a greater level of commitment and action is needed within PNG institutions to improve and maximize the development of local researchers.
Contemporary PNG Studies: DWU Research Journal Volume 37, May 2022 12
Strengthening capacity building of local researchers in Papua New Guinea
Leontine Baje and Rodney L. Itaki
Abstract
Research expands knowledge and information for development. This paper is an informal
survey assessing the state of institutional infrastructure that facilitates the advancement of
Papua New Guinean researchers within PNG and discusses the challenges that limit
opportunities for training and development. Some factors that could improve research capacity
are; (1) Building a common view to support local researchers among in-country stakeholders,
(2) Research and higher education leadership vested in creating opportunities for training from
undergraduate to higher degree levels (3) Activate and expand funding schemes to provide
assistance to student researchers and build institutional capacity and (4) Promote activities that
strengthen research culture such as academic publishing which has declined. While
international collaborations have assisted PNG greatly in developing research to current
standards, a greater level of commitment and action is needed within PNG institutions to
improve and maximize the development of local researchers.
Keywords: local researchers, research development and Papua New Guinea
Introduction
A country’s conduct of its own science or research is as much a part of national integrity and
independence as its right to make its own political decisions and preserve culture and traditions
(Kesteven, 1983). The building and utilization of knowledge within a nation is closely linked to its
growth and levels of poverty (Patrick, 2002). Countries that have invested in research and development
have experienced greater national and economic growth than those that have not (Acharya & Pathak,
2019). Like other developing nations Papua New Guinea (PNG) faces typical issues of scarcity of
funding, inadequate infrastructure and lack of human resources trained in various research fields
(Cordova & Yaghi, 2019; Rooney & Papoutsaki, 2004; Vose & Cervellini, 1983). Collaborative
research partnerships involving national and foreign participants address some of these barriers by
providing funding, expertise and training opportunities. Local researchers engaged in these partnerships
may have the opportunity to undertake further postgraduate studies and maximize the outcomes of their
participation but due to the lack of support this is often not realized.
Various authors have commented on the significance and state of research development in PNG.
Rooney and Papoutsaki (2004) questioned the intention for research in PNG. Garnaut and Namaliu
(2010) pointed out in a review of PNG universities that research conducted by indigenous scholars
culminating in a body of authoritative text on PNG issues is essential to national building. Novotny and
Toko (2015) highlighted progress and challenges of PNG nationals trained in terrestrial ecology
research. However, it is necessary to maintain this discourse considering the implications of supporting
national or local researchers to attain higher degrees by research and to continue academic and scholarly
work for PNG in this present time. While there is a multitude of significant progress that will be
forthcoming three key areas of advancement can be broadly identified.
Firstly, the capacity building of local researchers contributes towards realization of PNG’s national
goals and directive principles, in particular integral human development, equality and participation and
national sovereignty and self-reliance which are the premise for national development yet have been
overlooked since PNG’s independence (Kaiku, 2018). Secondly, this would supply the academic work
force for PNG’s growing number of higher education institutions which includes eight established
universities and a nineth university in the early stages of formation (Post Courier, 2022b). The current
output of doctoral degrees from national institutions and from aid scholarships are insufficient to meet
future needs. Thirdly, current issues such as climate change and the COVID 19 pandemic are multi-
faceted and have widespread societal impacts that can potentially exacerbate other existing social issues
13 Baje & Itaki, Strengthening capacity building of local researchers in Papua New Guinea
requiring rapid and robust response mechanisms (Hukula, 2020). Active research networks gathering
information across systems and sectors of society for higher level policy and evidence based decision
making are needed (Hynes et al., 2020). Therefore equipping PNG with expertise to address complex
problems that require a multi-disciplinary approach to formulate interventions (Avishek et al., 2012;
Waltham et al., 2020) should be a priority. Consequently, the aim of this paper is to continue the
dialogue on development and support for local researchers through an informal survey of the present
situation, describe the challenges faced and discuss ways forward.
Research infrastructure in PNG and challenges for university led research
In Papua New Guinea established government research institutions support agriculture, health, forestry
and public policy through the National Agricultural Research institute, PNG Institute of Medical
Research, PNG Forest Research Institute and National Research Institute respectively, all having links
to international partners. Independent research organizations are also established to support agricultural
practices for oil palm, coconut and cocoa and coffee cash crop production. Non-Governmental
organizations currently actively supporting and conducting research are the Piku Biodiversity Network
focusing on conservation of endangered species and the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre which
conducts research in terrestrial ecology focusing on insect plant relationships and other related research.
Research functions are also embedded in public service roles of sector organizations, though at times
organizational changes have led to the downsizing or removal of such functions (Kolkolo, 2005) which
lead to ad-hoc approaches (Allison et al., 2019; Forsyth, 2015) often involving international
collaborators when expertise are not found in PNG. While research institutions and organizations
contribute significantly to progressing the creation of knowledge in their respective areas of work, the
contribution of national universities which encompasses a broader scope of subject areas needs to
improve.
PNG remains under-performing in research across broader areas of study (Baje et al., 2018; Dinnen,
2019; N’Drower, 2014). Therefore, research collaborations are opportunities for baseline country-
specific information. Depending on the extent of data collection, “spin-off” projects can be developed
alongside core project objectives (White et al., 2018). International support has enabled Papua New
Guineans to undertake research studies abroad through scholarships and fellowship programs
(https://www.aciar.gov.au/scholarships/john-allwright-fellowship), however, in cases where studies
can be undertaken in PNG, mentoring and supervisory support from local universities is essential.
Therefore, the collaboration between sector organizations, universities and or research institutions must
be strengthened with a shared view on providing a framework to support capacity building of local
researchers. Importantly this should include a quality control system of sourcing suitable research
candidates when needed as this alleviates the human resource burden particularly on public sector
organizations to recruit personnel as this can be a cumbersome process delaying project schedules or
when further recruitment within an organization is not possible.
The call for indigenizing research in PNG has been discussed over the years (Brydon & Lawihin, 2016;
Rooney & Papoutsaki, 2004). Local researchers bring forward Melanesian perspectives (Neuendorf,
2014) and are better placed to develop country specific tools, for example, an indigenous research
methodology for the social sciences suited to the Papua New Guinean cultural setting (N’Drower,
2020). However, the focus of national higher education institutions has mainly been to provide teaching
and learning environments and less knowledge building through research culminating in a lack of
national research personnel and associated infrastructure (Rooney & Papoutsaki, 2004). At times large
teaching loads of more than 200 students per course places considerable strain on academics leaving
little room to focus on other roles (M.S. Wagambie pers com). With academic staff unable to fully
engage in research this leads to greater separation of universities and external research institutions
though this situation can be helped by stationing postgraduate students in research institutions and
maintaining the involvement of guest lecturers from research institutions at universities (Novotny &
Toko, 2015). Nevertheless, the development of research as a key performance indicator for academic
staff is recognized (Satter et al., 2013) but training and funding deficiencies are faced by local
universities to run postgraduate programs (Akanda et al., 2013). In addition a change in the attitude of
Contemporary PNG Studies: DWU Research Journal Volume 37, May 2022 14
academic staff towards lifelong learning (Lahui-Ako, 2017) may improve affinity to research and
supporting students as mentors and advisors. Due to these issues international expertise is often relied
upon through collaborative projects to support research development.
Factors that strengthen research development
Research leadership
Progress to build the capacity and volume of national researchers is limited to where institutional
leadership exists to support students. Consistent efforts to train local researchers builds national
expertise that can take on research supervision roles in future provided trained personnel are absorbed
into institutions through employment or engaged externally to mentor and advice students. For
example, the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (NGBRC) prioritizes the academic advancement
of local research staff from undergraduate to post graduate levels in terrestrial ecology studies. The
NGBRC links students with foreign expertise and enlists the supervisory support from local universities
in degree programs where possible, staff are also supported to study overseas for higher degrees, where
the Center has contributed to six PNG nationals enrolled as doctoral students at a foreign university
(https://www.facebook.com/binatangresearch/?ref=page_internal). Conversely, where training
opportunities are few or non-existent research collaborations risk becoming “parachute research” where
local staff are used merely as collectors of data and may not be given recognition for their work or are
overlooked for useful capacity building exercises such as involvement in the development of
publications (Braun, 2021). There is awareness among visiting scientists to ensure appropriate in
country regulations are followed and trust is built among collaborating parties (Chin et al., 2019).
However equal attention to this issue is also needed from in-country stakeholders to safeguard the
interests of local researchers.
Funding
Funding is a major enabler of research development including scholarships and expansion of physical
infrastructure. In PNG national funding for specific research-oriented work is captured in the functions
of sector organizations and institutions, however, this is limited and does not cater for progressive
training and support for local researchers. Lack of research funding in the technological sector in PNG
can also impede innovations (Wright, 2016). For a period prior to the formation of the Science and
Technology Council Secretariat the Department of Higher Education Research Science and Technology
(DHERST) formally known as the Office of Higher Education administered a competitive grant scheme
totaling K500, 000 annually. The National Research Agenda developed by the Secretariat of Science
and Technology aims to provide funding for in-country research projects in the future (Forsyth, 2016)
and may be an avenue to source funds for common expenses such as tuition and stipend for local
researchers. Recently the Secretariate has provided funding in excess of K100,000 for research projects
at the University of Technology (Post Courier, 2021). Noting that international funding can limit
national participation (Erondu et al., 2021) domestic funding schemes focused on national data and
information needs become increasingly important and should be administered following successful
models used in developed nations such as the Australian Research Council grant scheme where
applications are open to all institutions and funds are awarded on merit by a panel of independent
researchers (Novotny & Toko, 2015).
It is critical that the administration of funds should be without politization and corruption as these have
had detrimental effects on research and development in PNG (Omuru & Kingwell, 2006). Sector
organizations or government departments could also consider funding minor research projects at local
universities that contribute information for their respective national functions. At times public sector
organizations have invested funds into the data collection component of collaborative projects (Nicol
et al., 2010), however, funding for post graduate qualifications of local researchers involved in these
projects is overlooked. By allocating national funding support for local researchers’ additional gains to
research deliverables can be achieved. Appropriation of funds for research could support diverse
options such as joint or hybrid post graduate fellowships involving local and foreign universities where
researchers would be based locally. This would strengthen the capacity of local university staff to play
15 Baje & Itaki, Strengthening capacity building of local researchers in Papua New Guinea
a supervisory role, omit the difficulties faced by international students in foreign countries (Khanal &
Gaulee, 2019) and avoid the post study issues of re-integration that confront returning scholars who
have undertaken studies abroad (Langi, 2014).
Building research culture through peer-review scholarly publishing
A strong research culture is built on scholarly activities including peer-review and publishing of
research findings. It can be argued that the representation of nationals as first or last author in
publications is an indicator for research development (Mbaye et al., 2019). In many developing
countries including PNG the publication process is led by foreign researchers and there is a need for
greater exposure to the independent peer review process for local researchers (Singh, 2006). University
twinning projects aim to address this skills gap in academic staff (Baird et al., 2015) and similar
strategic training and mentorship programs tailored to research participants in the public service
(Thomson et al., 2016) would also be beneficial. Successful research publication is a prerequisite for
further postgraduate study which should be encouraged. However, avenues to publish research in
country are limited as few scholarly journals administered by local universities are active. While new
journals in the social sciences and education were recently launched
(https://www.unigoroka.ac.pg/index.php/news/81-first-journal-on-melanesian-perspective-launched-
on-line), scientific publication has fallen behind. The Science in New Guinea Journal and the Papua
New Guinean Journal of Agriculture are examples of scientific periodicals that have ceased publication.
The Papua New Guinea Medical Journal published by the Papua New Guinea Medical Society is one
of the few scientific journals still in publication although the publication is usually one to two years
behind. The peer review process is very slow taking up to 12 months for reviewers to respond to authors
causing authors who wish to publish in the PNG Medical Journal to opt for international medical
journals. Recently, the Division of Basic Medical Sciences at the University of PNG School of
Medicine and Health Sciences has launched the Pacific Journal of Medical Sciences aimed at publishing
undergraduate and post graduate research conducted by students at the university. The absence of local
publishing avenues limits the practice of academic writing and peer-review and contributes to the under
representation of PNG in academic literature (Langer et al., 2004). Involvement in peer-review and
publishing activities should ideally be taught and encouraged in undergraduate studies to build a strong
foundation for future researchers. In addition, constraints to publishing internationally include high
publication fees such as those charged by open access journals which can be addressed through funding
schemes set up to support scholarly publication. Poor command of English at the university level may
also be contributing to lack of interest in writing and publishing.
Taking ownership
International collaborative research partnerships have contributed positively to the upskilling of local
researchers and have instituted relationships that remain potential opportunities for further growth
(Turpin et al., 2008). These partnerships especially involving the public sector create an environment
where research, practice and capacity building interact integrating entities that otherwise operate in a
fragmented manner (Senge & Kim, 2013). Donor agencies and international research partners
objectively support capacity building in the recipient country (Bartlett, 2018), however, national
institutions and organizations must also take ownership of this to advance the development of Papua
New Guineans (Lingam et al., 2014; MacDonald, 2008; Velho, 2002).
Universities can begin with leveraging the current relationships between PNG universities and
universities abroad for further opportunities to train local researchers addressing critical data and
information gaps for PNG. Existing links include the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) and
the Australian National University through its Development Policy and other programs in the college
of Asia and the Pacific Centre as well as UPNG’s strong ties with the Cairns institute at James Cook
University. In addition, six PNG universities are members of the Pacific Islands Universities Research
Network (PIURN) where collaborations could also be fostered. Taking ownership may in the first
Contemporary PNG Studies: DWU Research Journal Volume 37, May 2022 16
instance require national universities to revisit mission and vision statements and form progressive
pathways to engage in research with in-country and external stakeholders (Baird & Kula-Semos, 2018).
Pathways Forward
While there is recognition of the importance of research development as a foundation for evidence-
based decision making the challenges faced by national universities impede progress and need to be
addressed as a high priority. Possible first steps given considerable funding constraints could involve
identification of specific needs that could be addressed through relatively low-cost interventions, for
example, establishing voluntary mentoring programs linking trained external researchers with
university faculties that need additional support. Secondly, specific training of academics for research
supervision and writing workshops to encourage scholarly writing and peer-review could be some
measures within the capacity of universities to take in the short to medium term.
These approaches will require universities to have a paradigm shift moving away from a purely teaching
role to having dual teaching-research roles. Such changes will require universities to make internal
organizational structural changes such as ensuring academic staff have paid protected time allocated
for research. Research output by universities could also be used by the government as a performance
indicator for additional university funding. Other approaches to strengthen research development such
as greater funding commitment from the government, policy directives and upgrading of research
facilities as articulated in the recommendations by Garnaut and Namaliu (2010) will take more time
and concerted effort from stakeholders.
Although important areas of progress must be also highlighted such as an increase in postgraduate
enrollment at the university of Technology that has also allocated K1 million from the university’s own
budget to support research (Post Courier, 2022a). In addition, the National Higher Education and
Technical Education Plan (NHETP) 2021-2030 produced by the Department of Higher Education
Research Science and Technology (DHERST) includes a focus on fostering a productive culture of
research and development throughout the higher education and technical education sector to support
national social and economic development. In the same token the department is strengthening ties with
the National Research Institute to meet the aims of the NHETP 2021-2030 through a memorandum of
understanding (DHERST, 2022).
Pathways to strengthening research capacity and training have been realized in other countries. In
Vietnam scientific research capacity was expanded through a global science approach fostering
mentoring relationships between research-strong institutions and local emerging scholars (Cordova &
Yaghi, 2019). An example from Malawi describes the establishment of a research support center to
provide both individual and institutional support through a phased approach over four years (Gomo et
al., 2011). Among low to middle income countries that have attempted to institutionalize and
strengthen research, important factors for long term success were equitable partnerships, strong local
leadership, higher education policies that support change, continued funding and incentivizing research
(Vicente-Crespo et al., 2020). These experiences serve as models that PNG could employ or modify
the application of such frameworks to suit local conditions.
Conclusion
While progress has been made towards the training and development of local researchers in PNG
further progress is required as research and innovation form a cornerstone of a developing society (Post
Courier, 2019). There are barriers to research though these are not insurmountable and existing
institutional linkages and processes can be strengthened to address the many societal issues facing PNG
at this present time. The effectiveness of efforts to improve research development in PNG can be
measured using indicators one of which should be an increase in the quantity and quality of scholarly
output by Papua New Guinean scholars in future. Ultimately, building the capacity of local researchers
should be taken seriously as it is one way of achieving overarching national goals that remain a
conceptual vision of prosperity until acted upon and institutionalized (Kaiku, 2020).The consequence
17 Baje & Itaki, Strengthening capacity building of local researchers in Papua New Guinea
of inaction, however, is a gross lack of national expertise and country specific information fundamental
to support national planning and development processes.
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https://borgenproject.org/cancer-in-papua-new-guinea/
About the authors
Both Leontine Baje (PhD) and Rodney Itaki (MD) are graduates of UPNG and have careers in
Fisheries and Medicine respectively which include various research training and involvement in
research projects including publications. The authors are co-founders of Papua New Guinea Research
Outreach Inc., a non-profit entity established in December 2020 with a focus to advocate for greater
support for local researchers in Papua New Guinea. This is the first publication for PNGRO Inc.
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