Data access and analysis is a key and fundamental window through which the researcher can address different health problems affecting the country. Discussing the challenges and opportunities in linking research and policy practice in Botswana at the second National Health Research Symposium held at Gaborone International Convention Centre (GICC) on 22nd November 2022, the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Dr Joseph Makhema argued that clinical data is an indispensable resource for health research and therefore there is need for open access policy on data with certain protections.
The symposium was held under the theme: “Unearthing Health Research for Better Uptake: Linking Research and Policy Practice.” Dr Makhema was part of a panel discussion that included Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dr Moses Keetile, Prof Gregory Hillhouse from Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST ), Dr Nobert Musekiwa from University of Botswana (UB) and Dr Milton Montebatsi from Botswana-University of Maryland School of Medicine Health Initiative (BUMMHI). Dr Makhema argued that access to data is crucial for knowledge generation necessary for the transformation of the economy from being a resource based to one driven by knowledge as espoused in the Government’s reset agenda.
He pointed out that researchers cannot analyse data if they cannot access it. He proposed that there has to be a functional national health data repository where after primary and secondary analysis of research objectives for specific regulatory approved projects, research investigators should be mandated to deposit data sets for their research projects at the repository.
Such data sets should be consistent with international standards with open access advised by specific protocols and protections. This would provide opportunity for analysis by other scientists including students on various health issues if the data sets are relevant to the subject matter. He strongly opined that data belongs to the Ministry of Health and the country.
He said that data is generated at immerse expense from funders, sponsors and research participants and it is an injustice if its use were not optimized. It would also be economical and beneficial for the same data to be used to seek solutions for different health problems as may be purposed and appropriate.
In response to a discussion on future research on stored samples, Dr Makhema strongly advocated for samples to be stored for future use. “We don’t have certain assays to do certain studies today which we may have available in the future and may need access to certain samples collected at specific time points to inform that new research.
A sample of acute infection of HIV in 2002 before we had antiretroviral therapy may be absolutely important today when we are working on a new immunological therapy or drug on acute infection based on a new technology which was not available in 2002, therefore, we have to store these samples for a certain period of time such that they can inform and advance human health in the future,” he explained.
He further argued that there is need for Government to systematically set the research agenda, coordinate and prioritize research based on the needs for the country while the role of the researcher should be to develop the research hypothesis, protocols and processes for the conduct of the research based on that research agenda and priorities. He further emphasized that then outcomes of such research should be packaged in a manner appropriate and easy to be assimilated into policy framework to advise the country’s health system.
Dr Norbert Musekiwa from UB reiterated the need for an open access policy on data, arguing that such a policy would benefit the research community especialy graduate students working on their masters and PhD thesis.
For his part, Prof Hillhouse from BIUST stressed the need for collaborations between research institutions and universities who outputs must align with national priorities and mandate. He said researchers must focus on relevant studies that empowers Batswana as per national priorities. He highlighted that driving socio- economic development for the country needs working together other than working in silos.
On what is BHP’s role in bridging the gap between research and policy implementation, Dr Makhema emphasized that BHP has the necessary capacity to mobilise resources for research funding and help translate the science in simple language for easy comprehension by policy makers and implementers.
For translation of research for policy implentation, Prof Hillhouse proposed that the Ministry of Health should have a Knowledge Transfer Office manned by a Chief Scientist who will absorb the research from research institutions and universities and break it down to policy level by drafting simple policy briefs in bullet points for easy understanding and uptake.
Dr Milton Montebatsi from BUMMHI highlighted that as an implementing partner, their role is to help Government in the epdidemic control of HIV and implementation of innovations and evidence-based good practices generated from research. He also said that BUMMHI supports Government to build a sustainable environment for good conduct of research.
Deputy PS for Health Policy, Research and Development at MOH, Dr Moses Keetile ackowldged the existing gaps in translating science into policy and practice. He welcomed the ideas from the panelists on how to bridge the gaps for the country to fully benefit from evidence- based research outcomes and recommendations.
Commenting on the proposal for open access to data, Dr Keetile indicated that data is a sensitive security issue but stated that the Government will look into coming up with appropriate systems on how data can be shared and accessed.
He said that the panel discussion raised important issues to look at, explaining that the symposium was one way of enhancing science engagement as the impact of research also depends on the effective communication of research findings.