Institutional Strengthening Programme (ISP)

The current CIRCLE programme now focuses on the Institutional Strengthening Programme (ISP), which previously ran alongside the Fellowship programme. The objective of the ISP is to help create a more enabling environment for returning fellows within their home institutions and thereby enhance the long-term impact of the programme and support available for early career researchers across the CIRCLE network.

Experience from existing international postgraduate scholarship and fellowship schemes indicates that, where a returning scholar or fellow works in an academic role, the long-term impact of the scholarship or fellowship is in large part determined by the institutional context in which the scholar or fellow works. After spending time working and/or studying in another country, many African academics struggle to establish successful research careers on their return to organisations that, for a wide variety of reasons, either constrain or do not adequately support their career development.

The purpose of this element of the programme is to enhance the potential of the CIRCLE Fellows to capitalise on the experience gained during the fellowship and to build a successful research career, thereby helping to secure the long-term contribution of African scientists to the body of knowledge on climate impacts. Active participation in the institutional capacity strengthening programme was a condition of involvement in the CIRCLE programme for home institutions. Host institutions were also invited to participate, but this was not compulsory.

Strengthening research capacity in participating African institutions

31 research institutions across 9 African countries are currently participating in the ISP. 

The ISP has two main objectives:

  • To enhance professional development support for early career academic staff.
  • To develop stronger institutional frameworks for supporting research, both in general and with reference to climate change.

The ISP aims to achieve these objectives through capacity building at three levels: leadership, policy and infrastructure; implementation of enhanced provision, and professional development of individual researchers. Training and bespoke support to strengthen early career research support within the participating institutions is provided by our partner, Vitae.

The ISP is in effect a change management process and concentrating on any one level to the exclusion of others makes long term capacity building and sustainability difficult to achieve. For example, implementation without policy and senior leadership support is unlikely to be sustainable or have institution-wide impact, and while career development for individuals has personal benefit, it does not change institutional policy and practices in the short term, and benefits may be lost when researchers leave their institutions.

The three-level approach of the ISP therefore sets a policy foundation for institutional strengthening, while developing provision and staff expertise and utilising career development skills for early career researchers to lead institutional strengthening in the future.

ISP activities

Activities under the ISP proceeded in two phases:

Phase 1

Institutions nominated members of staff to become ISP Champions, forming their ISP Implementation Teams. Our Champions were invited to carry out in-depth institutional needs analyses, including identification of common needs and challenges, based on an adapted version of the Vitae Concordat. The Implementation Teams then designed action plans aimed at addressing the gaps identified in their needs analysis.

Phase 2

Implementation Teams received training on capacity strengthening designed to respond to common needs and challenges identified in Phase 1. They were then tasked with carrying out activities outlined in their action plans. Regular consultation with Vitae was encouraged, and institutions were required to regularly report on progress made in the implementation of their action plans.

A range of achievements were reported by our institutions, and activities aimed at improving support for early career researchers are ongoing.

Progress to date

In our most recent survey of CIRCLE Champions, conducted in November 2017, considerable progress was reported in implementing their researcher development action plans.

The survey also indicated that 91% of institutions had improved the quality and quantity of training and support offered to early career researchers. Examples cited by the Champions included: an increase in the number of workshops and training opportunities for career development; improved engagement between senior researchers and early career researchers; increased access to internal funding; support for publications; and one institution reported the establishment of an internal committee for reviewing departmental research.

50% of respondents had set up formal programmes for mentoring early career researchers and 75% had held mentoring workshops to improve the quality of mentoring within their institution. Additionally, 68% of respondents had introduced policies and/or strategies for supporting career and professional development planning for research staff, including the redefinition of the institutional vision of career development and several reported the establishment of formal career and professional development training.

In support of the activities mentioned above, CIRCLE established an ISP Implementation Fund to facilitate the delivery of actions outlined in institutional plans. A total of 18 institutions received awards to deliver a range of activities including workshops on mentoring, career development planning and the utilisation of the Vitae Researcher Development Framework.

Although the project is beginning to witness considerable progress against ISP action plans, much remains to be done to institutionalise and embed those changes for long term sustainable impact. In March 2018, CIRCLE was awarded a 12-month extension to continue work on the ISP, and further monitor the impact of the programme.

Continuing the ISP

The extension of the ISP will enable the project to monitor, and further support, the continued progress of universities against their action plans, enhancing the impact of the ISP and the sustainability of its results.

A structured monitoring framework has been developed to better assess and evaluate the impact of the ISP across the institutional network. This framework is guided by current progress in delivery of the action plans, currently designed using Vitae’s Concordat Principles. Each institution will be supported to set revised targets and actions to further embed the ISP and build on achievements made within the programme so far. These targets will be revisited and evaluated throughout the extension period and updated where necessary.

Further time will also allow the project to gather more in-depth data on the changes in policy and practise taking place across CIRCLE institutions and factors that have been catalysts for or barriers to change. This will enable the project to contribute more fully to understanding of how to strengthen institutional capacity to undertake high quality research into climate impacts in Africa – one of the project’s intended outcomes.

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ACUAfrican Academy of Sciences UK AID - Department for International Development

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