Funding opportunity

Funding opportunity: Pre-announcement: African Research Leaders 2023

Apply for funding to support excellent global health research and strengthen research leadership across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

We aim to attract and retain exceptionally talented ‘rising star’ individuals who will lead high quality research on key global health issues pertinent to SSA.

Researchers should be supported by an enthusiastic local research environment and by a UK-based mentor as part of a partnership between the African and UK institutions.

Awards will provide support for up to five years and the requested amount should not exceed £750,000 in total.

This is a pre-announcement and the information may change.

The funding opportunity will open in September 2022. More information will be available on this page by then.

Who can apply

This scheme seeks to support talented early-to-mid career African researchers who are either already based in a sub-Saharan African country, or currently working overseas who wish to return to a sub-Saharan African country.

You can apply for this opportunity if you are a researcher based at an eligible African research organisation that provides a strong research environment. This includes:

  • universities or higher education institutions based in SSA with degree-awarding powers recognised by the government in which the organisation is based. This includes the MRC units at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Uganda and the Gambia
  • research focused institutes based in SSA either funded by the government of the country in which the organisation is based or by a not-for-profit organisation
  • research focused not-for-profit organisations based in SSA with dedicated research capacity.

If a candidate is returning to work in SSA, they are expected to make their own arrangements for obtaining a tenured academic position at an eligible African research institution if one is not already held (and should be in post by the start of any award).

The successful candidate would be expected to continue their appointment at the African research institution beyond the term of this award.

The African candidate will:

  • have completed a PhD
  • be well-qualified for academic research having spent at least the last three years in active research.

Outstanding candidates who do not have a PhD but who are educated to master’s level and have substantial research experience, as evidenced by their publication record, may also be considered in exceptional circumstances.

Applications from women are encouraged. Candidates wishing to combine their research with domestic responsibilities may seek the award on a part-time basis. The terms and conditions of the award make allowances for maternity or paternity leave. Allowance will also be made to those researchers whose career has been affected, either by a late start or by interruption, for personal or family reasons.

For more details on institutional and individual eligibility, please see the MRC eligibility requirements.

The African research leadership proposal should be submitted in partnership with a UK co-investigator (mentor) offering relevant opportunities, such as:

  • senior or complementary scientific expertise
  • skill strengthening
  • discipline widening
  • technology sharing
  • mentoring.

The UK partner institution may be any eligible UK research institution, including MRC institutes and university units based in the UK.

Researchers not eligible

African researchers who already have a well-established record of securing significant international research grant funding or have reached a level of seniority (for example, professor or head of department) should not apply to this scheme.

These individuals may apply at any time as a co-investigator together with a UK-based principal investigator to any of our response mode funding schemes, and as principal investigator to the MRC Applied Global Health Research Board, depending on the focus of your research.

Limit on the number of proposals

There is no restriction on the number of applications submitted by each institution. However, MRC and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office aim to foster research leadership in a breadth of academic environments. It is therefore unlikely that several awards will be made to any one institution in a single opportunity.

What we're looking for

Your application will be required to meet the four key elements of the scheme, namely a:

  • talented ‘rising star’ African research leader candidate
  • high quality research programme proposal
  • research conducive academic African environment or institution
  • firm partnership with a UK partner institution.

‘Rising star’ candidate

We’re looking for ‘rising star’ African research leaders. Candidates will be high-calibre, early-to-mid career researchers, who show a clear ability to cultivate a dynamic and innovative research group, likely to attract increasing international recognition and external funding by the end of the award.

The African candidate will hold (or make arrangements for obtaining) a tenured academic position at an eligible African research institution.

As a ‘rising star’, the African candidate will:

  • be developing a research team and undertaking original research
  • be building a track record of independence in their selected field and demonstrating promise as a future research leader
  • be well-qualified for academic research having spent at least the last three years in active research. This may be evidenced:
    • through a growing track record of staff and student supervision
    • through an expanding portfolio of lead author publications
    • by securing local or national funding
    • by attracting recognition through prizes and awards.

In addition to supporting scientific collaboration with the partner UK institution, the scheme offers the African research leader an opportunity to spend time (up to three months) for further career development activities, training or skills development in either country.

Examples include:

  • research management
  • mentoring
  • publication writing
  • industry internship.

Proposed research programme

We’re looking for talented and enthusiastic investigators working in all biomedical and health research areas. Priority will be given to applications that address key health problems relevant to national and regional health needs, hence best conducted in SSA.

We welcome high quality applications from investigators across a broad range of research activities within the MRC and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO’s) global health remits. Please refer to MRC’s and FCDO’s strategic priority pages.

Activities can be focused on any major health priority in SSA, including:

  • research focused on the prevention and management of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, respiratory disease and mental health
  • prevention and control of infectious diseases (major diseases such as malaria, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and tuberculosis), neglected tropical diseases (including snakebite), zoonotic and emerging diseases, co-infections and issues associated with emerging resistance to current drugs
  • multimorbidity (the co-existence of two or more chronic conditions, including long-term infectious and non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions)
  • basic, discovery health research approaches, experimental medicine providing mechanistic insight to human diseases, epidemiological (social, genetic and immunological) research, and prevention research
  • applied research approaches, including public health, health systems, health policy and implementation research
  • research targeting vulnerable or disadvantaged groups including refugees, people living in informal settlements, those living with disability, neonates, children, adolescents or the elderly.

This scheme will not support clinical or health related trials including ‘phase 1’ safety, proof of principle, efficacy or effectiveness trials of any new medicinal product, device, vaccine or other clinical intervention.

However, it will support observational programmes of epidemiological, laboratory, field and clinical research and early stage developmental or formative research which may be associated with or lead to future health intervention evaluation. If this is the case, the outcomes of the research and how these will be anticipated to inform future work should be made clear.

In recognition of the COVID-19 pandemic, proposals contributing to the understanding, prevention or management of the COVID-19 outbreak are welcomed. We do not expect to only receive proposals in COVID-19 related research, however we do require an honest assessment of how the pandemic might affect your research plans. Please note, COVID-19 related proposals will be assessed according to the scheme specific assessment criteria in a competitive manner with wider non-COVID-19 research proposals.

The majority of the proposed research is expected to take place in the African environment. The African research leader should be supported by a robust research environment in their own local institution and by a strong linkage with a UK partner. The resources requested should be specific, justified and relevant to the research proposed.

This scheme is not primarily intended to support PhD studentships in obtaining their degree. PhD fees, allowances and stipends will not be supported. However, if the candidate does propose to involve PhD students to deliver elements of the work within their research programme, it will be necessary to explain how the supervision and input of those students will be managed to ensure their training is protected.

The African research institution

The scheme is offered to candidates employed by eligible institutions based in SSA, that provide a strong research environment.

The host African institution must offer a clear research and career development environment with appropriate laboratory, field or clinical facilities to enable the research activities proposed as well as supportive administrative functions. The candidate should be able to draw on mentoring from senior individuals, and their career development be nurtured. Where appropriate, fostering of scientific links across sub-Saharan African institutions is encouraged.

The African institution will be expected to provide a strong commitment to the continuity of appointment of the researcher beyond the term of the award, such as a tenured position or equivalent. There is also an expectation that over time, the African institution would increase its level of financial support of the individual (if not 100% from the outset).

The African institution may build into the application a funding contribution for institutional development to support a set of institutional strategic objectives, the outputs of which should be verifiable and be able to be monitored. This could include capacity strengthening such as improved finance, data or research management, and professional training. Tools and good practice documents on capacity strengthening in low and middle-income countries are available on the Tropical Diseases, Special Programme for Research and Training (ESSENCE) website.

Partnership between the African and UK institutions

This scheme aims to encourage a research supportive environment for the developing African research leader, both in the host African institution and importantly involving strong support from, and access to, expertise in UK academia.

The African research leadership proposal should, therefore, be submitted in partnership with a UK co-investigator (mentor) offering relevant opportunities, such as:

  • senior or complementary scientific expertise
  • skill strengthening
  • discipline widening
  • technology sharing
  • mentoring.

The individual scientific partnership between the candidate and the UK mentor must be underpinned either by an established track record of partnership at the institutional level or a clear plan for developing and sustaining long-term cross-institutional collaboration.

Previous partnering need not be in exactly the same area of research proposed in the application, however, the relevant strengths that each institution brings to the research proposed should be indicated.

How we will assess your application

Applications will be peer reviewed by external reviewers and considered by an independent expert panel. The panel will shortlist candidates for a virtual interview. The co-investigator mentor from the UK partner institution will also be invited to the interview with the candidate for research leader.

The reviewers’ comments are fed back (verbatim but unattributed) to all candidates after the shortlisting process. Candidates whose proposals are shortlisted will have the opportunity to provide written comment on their reviewers’ feedback prior to the interview.

Shortlisted candidates will normally be notified four weeks before the interview date. Virtual interviews will take place in May 2023.

We reserve the right not to process an application if the scheme’s eligibility criteria and key elements are not met or if the application has not been completed in full or is received after the submission deadline.

Assessment criteria

Referees and interview panel members are asked to assess four key areas:

  • the candidate for research leader
  • the programme of research
  • the African research environment or institution
  • the African-UK institutional partnership.

In assessing proposals, reviewers and panel members are asked to use the following criteria.

The candidate for African research leader

The criteria is as follows:

  • has the candidate demonstrated their potential as a high-calibre researcher and are they a rising star? What track record exists?
    • is the candidate appropriately qualified to undertake the research proposed?
    • has the candidate demonstrated their independence as a research scientist?
  • has the candidate presented a persuasive case that they can carry out and deliver the proposed programme of work?
  • how well does the work fit with other relevant research pursued by the candidate?
  • has the candidate shown that they can effectively cultivate and lead a dynamic research team?
  • does the candidate show potential to be a good ambassador for MRC?

The candidate’s programme of research

The assessment of the programme of research will be the same as that of any research proposal. You should comment on the importance and competitiveness of the proposed research, including:

  • the strength of medical or scientific case
  • how convincing and coherent the overall proposed approach is
  • how well the proposed research addresses the priority health problems of people in sub-Saharan Africa
  • has the work already been done or is it being done elsewhere?
  • is it important to pursue this topic now? Is the research timely?
  • the level of innovation and whether that is likely to lead to significant new understanding
  • the level of engagement with key stakeholders (for example, policymakers, end-users and practitioners), where appropriate, to increase the chances of impact or scale-up
  • the management strategy proposed, including equitable access to any shared resources
  • feasibility of experimental plans, including provision of preliminary data where appropriate
  • are the experimental plans realistic, given the aims of the research, timeframe and proposed resources?
  • have major scientific, technical or organisational challenges been identified, and will they be tackled well?
  • does the proposal realistically set out the ultimate potential benefits with respect to improving human health?

The African environment or institution: demonstration of a research-conducive environment

The criteria is as follows:

  • does the sub-Saharan African country offer a stable and research conducive environment?
  • are the African institution’s mission, scientific objectives, strategy, management and governance policies clear?
  • is the African institution’s commitment to the mid to long-term career of the proposed research leader clear and appropriate?
    • has the African institution adequately described how it will increase its level of financial support of the proposed research leader?
  • has the African institution demonstrated a strong commitment to supporting the research work proposed and the career goals of the candidate?
  • are there well established relationships with the research relevant health services and Ministry of Health?
  • what evidence is there that the institution has a commitment to developing systems for translating research outputs towards health policies, practices and products?
  • is the institution a valued partner in South-South or North-South links, demonstrated through contribution to research networks, joint training and development of initiatives nationally and internationally?
  • has a clear and persuasive case been made for any institutional development needs, relating to the proposed candidate African research leader?
    • is it appropriate, of good quality, feasible, value for money and likely to be of benefit?

The African-UK institutional partnership

The criteria is as follows:

  • have the African and UK institutions demonstrated the existence of a strong well-developed equitable research partnership with a commitment to research excellence, capacity development and research to improve the health of disadvantaged populations?
  • does the existing partnership provide a clear platform for the future proposed African leader activities, both in scientific and developmental terms?
  • is it clear what the proposed major benefits of the partnership to the research leader candidate over the period of award and beyond are
  • does this partnership provide an opportunity to catalyse both leadership and research activities for the candidate?
  • how will the proposed African leader’s activities generate added value or synergies for the African institution?
  • how will the learning from any proposed visits to the UK be used for the wider benefit of the African partner?

Justification for resources

The criteria is as follows:

  • are the funds requested essential for the work and do the importance and scientific potential justify funding on the scale requested?
  • are the requested elements clear and appropriate, such as the contribution to the candidate research leader’s personal salary, the costs relating to the research leader’s development (including costs of any visit or placement), the costs relating to the African institutional development in relation to the candidate and the costs relating to the programme of research:
    • African Research Leaders and UK co-investigators: is the requested time, consistent with their proposed involvement, necessary or sufficient for the successful management of the research, and a realistic expectation of the time they could make available?
    • are the numbers of other research staff appropriate for the work described?
    • this scheme is not primarily intended to support PhD students in obtaining their degree. However, if the candidate has involved PhD students on their research programme, then are the proposed, supervisory arrangements, research and timeframe of the programme appropriate?
  • does the proposal represent good value for money in terms of the resources being requested?

Referees and panel members make their assessment under these main criteria and also identify any ethical issues or risks to human participants that need further attention. The full criteria is detailed in the MRC guidance for peer reviewers.

Contact details

Get help with developing your proposal

For help and advice on costings and writing your proposal, please contact your research office in the first instance, allowing sufficient time for your organisation’s submission process.

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