The National Nutrition Program of Ethiopia clearly stipulates the need for strengthening national research capacity in areas of food and nutrition. Evidence generation through local research and application of findings is thus promoted by nutrition projects such as Growth through Nutrition. Tufts University, which leads the research and learning arm of Growth through Nutrition, manages a small research grant scheme which aired its first call for applications from mid-February to March 2018.
Among the 40 submissions, mostly made by graduate students and their supervisors,16 passed through the first line of screening. Alongside continued filtering through robust project-set criteria, a quick review of the screened submissions identified the following common features that nutrition program and research communities need to reflect on and pay attention to from the perspective of ensuring programmatic applicability of local research outputs. Please note that these observations do not neccissarily infer to all local studies, given that this ‘quick and dirty’ review approach is applied mainly with the intention of provoking important discussions.
Research questions rising from local reality: While many of the reviewed proposals were correct in referencing the latest global literature to support study contexts, the depiction of the local context to justify primary research questions was often inadequate and unclear. Is this due to lack of widely accessible published local literature? Limited availability of program data? Less contact among researchers and nutrition program implementers? Will not such a gap increase the risk of studies duplicating what is already known rather than filling true knowledge gaps? Will stronger linkage between graduate studies and actual programs address this issue?
Research team without rigid borders: Many of the proposed research studies were proposed to be led (authored) by graduate students, university professors or staff from research institutes. No proposal presented a mixed team of academia and practitioners from the health system, other relevant sectors or nutrition programs. Will not stronger collaboration between researchers and implementers from the very outset of study projects improve later programmatic uptake of study recommendations?
Equitable focus on multiple layers of the undernutrition causal framework: Significant proportions of the studies proposed to investigate research questions related to immediate causes, i.e., mainly health-sector-related determinants of malnutrition. Will not framing more local research questions that span underlying and basic causes of malnutrition - covering agriculture, education, WASH, social protection, communications, governance, etc., help enhance multisectoral dialogues and implementation?
Tantamount emphasis to the qualitative domain of studies: It was great to see most of the studies proposing mixed qualitative and quantitative approaches. However, the details often favored the quantitative aspect. Since food culture and most nutrition-related practices are context-specific, programs that need to improve these practices require a good understanding of the ‘why’. Therefore, how the qualitative domain of local research can be strengthened seems to require due attention.
Engaging the target population up to the end of the research process: Most of the proposals presented a good data collection plan that included the translation of data collection tools into local languages. But they failed to mention how the studied community (often at sub-national levels) would be made to learn about the collective findings and recommendations. Will not sharing findings to the lower levels foster applicability? Are not researchers somehow responsible to actively support accessibility of their findings?
Finally, even with all these points being carefully addressed, it is primarily a study with strong quality, conducted with the utmost professionalism that can inform right decisions. Only quality research outputs that can effect change reinforce trust in research and encourage nutrition stakeholders to wholeheartedly invest in local research.
By Lioul Berhanu
Lioul Berhanu serves as Nutrition Advisor for the Growth through Nutrition Activity