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Working together for and with early-career researchers

On the occasion of the launch of the first edition of the ISC newsletter dedicated to Early and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCR), the International Network for Advancing Science and Policy (INASP), an ISC Member, reflects on its initiatives to foster higher education and learning while supporting individuals and institutions in the production, sharing, and utilization of research and knowledge.

The International Science Council (ISC) started its journey in 2018 following the merger of 87-year-old International Council for Science (ICSU) and 66-year-old International Social Science Council (ISSC). Since this rejuvenation, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the Council has achieved a number of commendable milestones — establishing the Regional Focal Point for Asia and the Pacific in 2023 as ISC’s regional hub is one of them.

Recently, I represented International Network for Advancing Science and Policy (INASP) at the ISC’s Global Knowledge Dialogue (GKD) for Asia and the Pacific Region in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was the first event of the Asia-Pacific Hub jointly organised by ISC, the Australian Academy of Science, host of the Hub, and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. Around 170 delegates from 35 countries discussed many globally important issues: science in sustainability and advancing planetary health, freedoms and responsibilities in science, science diplomacy to achieve the SDG Agenda, and building the voices of science in the Asia-Pacific Region. But one focus inspired me the most: Early and Mid-Career Researchers (EMCRs).

It’s not only because there was a pre-event session on the Young Academies and Associations, or that the EMCRs and representatives of Young Academies were supported to join the GKD, or keynotes were delivered by a couple of award-winning young scientists — it was more than that.

Throughout the event, the EMCRs were vocal asking questions to the ISC leadership and other leaders of the scientific ecosystem, challenging the status quo. In the final session all participants identified the major areas that they want the ISC and its membership to work on in in the Asia-Pacific region. These included working with and for the young researchers and professionals of the region through capacity development, building communities and networks, cross-landscape collaboration, and research translation and knowledge mobilization, among others, for greater research impacts.

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Listening to EMCRs of the Global South

These expectations from the ISC membership very much match the findings from INASP’s recent survey on the ECRs from the Global South. About 8,000 researchers based in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere expressed their strong motivation to conduct research for their nations’ scientific development and betterment of their societies. An overwhelming number of respondents believed in their capacity to create societal impact and felt committed to carry on as researchers over the coming years. Nevertheless, their enthusiasm and interest were strongly challenged by limited access to funding, inadequate opportunities to collaborate, limitations of prevailing evaluation, a lack of reward and support systems, and gender inequity.

The survey led to a number of recommendations, including i) Strengthening capacity-building initiatives considering diverse contexts and needs, and gender equity; ii) Advocating for a holistic research assessment and evaluation system; iii) Maximizing collaboration and networking opportunities; and iv) Improving accessibility of funding and opportunities for EMCRs.

Building EMCRs’ capacities and skills

INASP has long been working for and with ECRs along most of those recommended action threads. Through their online learning platform on Moodle, called learn@INASP, INASP regularly organises Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) with several thousand participants, for example, on academic writing and grant proposal writing skills for young scientists, social scientists, and health researchers. It also offers self-study tutorials for authors, policy influencers, as well as online course facilitators.

Speaking of building capacity of the training facilitators, INASP recently launched an AuthorAID Facilitators Online Bootcamp on online facilitation for research writing skills. In the first week of November and of December 2023, two rounds of sessions and masterclasses are being organised for potential facilitators to improve their skills and outlooks towards delivering such capacity building sessions in a virtual environment.

INASP also designs tailor-made courses and learning platforms for specific audiences around the world. A short course on social protection design and delivery for practitioners in Pakistan, an Education Sub Saharan Africa (ESSA)-sponsored course on research communication for policy engagement, and courses for the UK NIHR’s Global Health Academy are some great examples showcasing the range INASP covers.

Towards successful mentoring relationships

Since 2014, INASP’s mentoring initiatives through its AuthorAID programme have been providing a virtual space for its 14,000 young as well as experienced researchers to collaborate. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a special mentoring programme was piloted in  2020, which offered better understanding of virtual mentoring, explored the feasibility of manually matching mentors and mentees, and identified success elements of mentoring relationships.

In July 2023, a WhatsApp conversation was conducted by INASP with its network members to explore the needs around effective mentoring. The discussion around  the definition of mentorship, capacities and skills needed, and prevailing key barriers/challenges to successful mentoring. Providing resources and guidance to mentors and mentees, creating space for peer-to-peer learning, piloting group/peer mentoring, and creating an AI mentor bot to cover basic needs of mentees were identified as potential solutions to those challenges. Building on these suggestions and the resources available on the Mentor Hub, INASP is now working on updating its mentoring activities.

Networking and building communities

INASP has been organizing Tea Time with AuthorAID since 2022. In this monthly virtual event, scholars from around the world engage in informal conversations and networking while having a cup of tea or drink, and explore collaboration opportunities, sometimes around a particular topic.

AuthorAID’s Journal Clubs offer dual services: on the one hand, they create networking opportunities within a particular discipline (e.g., environmental biology and toxicology, social science, biomedicine and healthcare, and climate science); on the other hand, they enhance the understanding of the participants of certain research topics through regular virtual sessions. Speaking of building communities, INASP also supports  country hubs (currently in Ghana, Kenya, and Nigeria) as well as issue-base communities (e.g., African Community for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (ACSRM)).

It could be really useful to other ISC Members and initiatives to explore the programmes and resources INASP offers and benefit from these. Besides, INASP being based in different countries around the world creates an amazing opportunity to collaborate with ISC members and regional hubs, especially on ECRs agendas. Such cooperation can initiate new actions, such as equitable evaluation and assessment system for ECRs, which demands fundamental system change in the Global South.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented in this article are those of the individual contributor/s, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

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