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The Union/MSF Center for Operational Research: Setting the Standard

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Dr Anthony Harries is Senior Advisor and Director of The Union’s Department of Research, and along with Dr Rony Zachariah of Médecins Sans Frontières and The Union’s Ajay Kumar, oversees the Center for Operational Research. In 2012, The Union and MSF entered into a global partnership with the World Health Organization and developed a new approach to training researchers, which involves close mentorship and requires all participants to conduct original research and carry it through to publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Last year, the UK Department of International Development commissioned an in-depth independent evaluation of the program. Technopolis performed the evaluation and issued its report last month—finding that the program is highly effective and sets the standard for operational research capacity building.

In an interview with The Union’s communications team, Dr Harries responds to the evaluation and explains what makes the program so effective.

Q. What are the gaps that you’re trying to fill through the Center for Operational Research?

Basically we’re trying to get operational research used in low and middle income countries. Health research has been around a long time, and academia and research institutions are good at doing basic science research and clinical trials research. But it’s operational research that’s used for improving health systems and health services. We feel this kind of research should be run by the people working in these areas. This is something that public health people have been talking about for awhile. The rhetoric is good, but the implementation has been bad because there’s little capacity to be able to carry out operational research. So we’ve been trying to fill that gap by training people who work in government institutions as well as NGOs to do operational research, with the hope that after their training they can go back and carry it out in their countries.

Q. Is that two-part approach—the classroom instruction followed by actual research being carried out within countries—something that makes the COR’s training program unique? 

Precisely, the main distinguishing feature compared with other programs is that it’s output oriented. We train people and we do research at the same time. Participants develop a research project at the beginning of the course and they carry it through to implementation—analysing data, writing it up as a scientific paper, and then hopefully using the results to change policy and public health practice in the country where they’re working. It’s like an apprenticeship. The course has a well defined structure, so the participants know what’s expected and those who come on the course have to fulfill milestones. If they don’t fulfill them, we very nicely and politely say goodbye to them. It’s a way to ensure they’re committed to the course and we’re not wasting money training someone who’s not prepared to see it through to the end. We’re accredited by the World Health Organization’s Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases. Our course is called SORT-IT, which stands for Structured Operational Research and Training Initiative, and we have targets we have to meet for each course in order to keep that brand. It’s a quality assurance mechanism to make sure we are delivering, that the students feel the modules are good and up to standard, with most making it through to the end, and most of our papers being accepted into peer-reviewed journals, and whether we’re making an impact on policy and practice.

Q. The evaluation was quite thorough. What were the highlights for you?

A group called Technopolis spent a year doing a very detailed evaluation about what our course is about and comparing with other courses, and looking at the outputs of people trained by our course versus people who were not trained by our course. And they found the course to be highly effective. They felt that the training was very relevant and high quality, they felt it was a holistic training package, and in their words it should set the standard for other operational capacity building models in the world. They felt our mentoring of students was very successful and largely responsible for the good outputs of the course and for making a difference on policy and practice. If you looked at the scientific output of the courses, the impact on our scientific fellows gaining experience, they felt it was very good value for money. It has given us confidence that we’re heading in the right direction.

Q. And now that you’ve had the evaluation, how are you using it to guide the future of the program?

Technopolis made various recommendations and we’ve used some of them to redesign the next five years of work that will be supported by the UK government through DFID. They felt we should have a stronger country focus. At the moment our courses are global or international, and they felt we were spreading ourselves too thin. We felt it was a great recommendation. So we’ll have a strong country focus in India, Myanmar and in Ethiopia, and we’ll continue running our regional courses. They felt we needed to be more transparent in the selection of our students and we’ve redesigned how we catalogue how we select our students. They felt we should supplement our long courses with short courses. For example, one on how to use EpiData, a software package that lets you collect and analyze data. Or a short course on how you write a peer-reviewed paper. So in the next five years we’ll work to develop short courses at the country level. They made a number of great recommendations that will help us move us forward.

Q. How can researchers apply to be in the program?

We put out a call for applicants every time we organize the next course, and we market that course through our network, working with MSF, WHO and the network of alumni from previous courses. We have a comprehensive application form that applicants fill out, along with supplemental documents. We have a lot of interest with every course we run, we get between 100 and 150 applicants for just 12 places, so that tells me we need to scale up the number of courses. People who are interested in the program can go to The Union’s website and search for “Center for Operational Research” and learn all about it, including what courses are offered and when.

Go here to access the full evaluation. 

Learn more about the Center for Operational Research.