Making Research Leadership Roles Accessible for Scientists in Developing Countries

It is generally observed that the concept of “Research Leadership” is not well-defined in clear and concise terms in literature. There is a consensus that distinct guidelines and training for research leaders are not well delineated, as stated by Saltmarsh, 2011 regarding the definition of governance systems.

The United Nations defines a developed or industrialized country as having a high quality of life and advanced technological infrastructure. Such countries are characterized by their high per capita income, diverse industrial mix, developed financial system, higher population life expectancy, and well-developed educational system.

On the other hand, a developing country has a relatively low standard of living, an undeveloped industrial base, and a moderate to low Human Development Index (HDI). This index is a comparative measure of poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, and other factors.

Research leadership guidelines and the corresponding criteria and standards vary based on factors such as geographic location, institutional governance structure, local and international research ethics considerations and regulations, and cultural norms at both the organizational and national levels. As a result, the country where research is conducted plays a significant role in shaping the landscape of research leadership.

The definition of research leadership and what constitutes good research governance can often be subjective and influenced by the perspectives of research team members in a given environment. Saltmarsh, 2011 suggests that academics are promoted based on their ability to prove themselves as researchers, with the assumption that research competence implies an understanding of how to lead, inspire, and manage others’ research. According to Greco et al, 2022, research leadership entails new responsibilities such as hiring, managing research teams or groups, and being accountable for team performance.

Researchers typically receive training in areas such as research design, execution, and publishing, as well as grant writing and building research partnerships. These skills are widely recognized as essential for successful research leadership. However, there is also a need for training in other areas that are not typically covered, such as team management, navigating hierarchical structures, and integrating into organizational cultures with respect to traditions and structure.

In 2022, Greco et al. conducted a study that explored the experiences of researchers who were appointed to leadership roles without adequate training. The study found that these researchers were often unprepared for the responsibilities that came with their new roles and did not fully understand the consequences of their appointments. As a result, many of these research leaders struggled to find the support they needed to succeed in their roles. They also lacked the necessary language and conceptual frameworks to articulate what was lacking or required in their new leadership positions. The study also highlights the importance of acknowledging the impact of different identities, including privilege, race, gender, national origin, relational issues, systemic issues, and hierarchical issues on the experience of being a principal investigator.

According to Saltmarsh, 2011 research leaders in the academic or tertiary environment are not given formal induction for the skills required for effective research leadership. Instead, they usually receive guidance on research leadership through mentoring, writing programs, or by attending workshops and seminars. However, such training is informal and not linked to formal capacity-building programs. Moreover, good research leadership is not directly funded, evaluated, or rewarded meaningfully.

Our Plantae team conducted a short survey to understand better research leadership in developed and developing countries. Participants came from developing countries such as Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico, Guyana, Colombia, Argentina, India and Nigeria, while those from developed countries were from the United States, Italy and Germany.

The survey was conducted to determine the time it takes for research leaders to obtain leadership positions in both settings. It evaluated the number of publications individuals had produced and the duration it took to accomplish these objectives. The capability to effectively plan and execute research projects and then publish the results has been recognized as a significant criterion for the selection and achievement of leadership roles in the academic environment worldwide.

We gathered feedback on the difficulties researchers encounter and the guidance they can provide to make the research leadership role accessible in developing countries while simultaneously establishing a model for research leadership in developed countries.

Our aim was to use this survey to gain insight into research leadership in developed countries and explore the disparities in the environment that facilitate access to research leadership positions.

One important factor assessed by the survey was the availability of support systems in both developed and developing countries to promote researchers’ advancement to leadership roles.

Individuals from developing countries who become research leaders often receive support primarily from entities such as government agencies, universities, and colleges. This trend highlights the critical role that institutional support plays in nurturing research leaders, especially in areas where research facilities and opportunities may be limited

In contrast, individuals from developed countries who attain leadership positions in research typically receive support from various sources, including universities or colleges, mentors, government research institutions, and startup companies. This indicates a diverse array of support systems that contribute to their professional growth and leadership development, including educational guidance, personalized mentorship, government resources, and entrepreneurial opportunities.

It was found that the majority of participants attained leadership roles in developed countries. However, some respondents mentioned that it was easier to do so in developing countries. Interestingly, 25% of respondents from developed countries produced more than ten publications on average, while 75% had less than five publications. On the other hand, 50% of the participants from developing countries had more than ten publications, while the remaining 50% had less than five publications. It is possible that this difference in publication output was due to the limited number of participants from developed countries.

Research leaders from developed countries did not cite funding as a challenge. Instead, they faced issues of communication, culture shock, and competition, which sometimes led to questioning the titles of co-researchers from underdeveloped countries.

In order to promote research and enhance accessibility in developing countries, participants suggest that it is necessary to provide training courses and improve access to funding. Another potential approach is to educate businesses and governments on the importance of research applications. While research leadership training was identified as a challenge in developing countries, it was also noted that there are no formal training courses specifically designed for research leadership development. Similarly, developed countries also lack formal training programs tailored for developing research leadership skills.

Challenges in obtaining leadership roles, whether in developed or developing countries, are numerous. These include intense competition, questioning of titles from underdeveloped countries, communication and culture shock, gender bias, limited funding and resources, cliques promoting insiders rather than merit-based promotions, and few available positions with stagnant turnover. Factors contributing to these challenges include unfavorable retirement options for senior leaders, declining public investment in research, and limited opportunities for true open competition in public research universities. Other challenges that hinder researchers include limited access to funding and resources, lack of recognition for contributions, political and economic instability, and shifting government policies regarding science funding. Additionally, lack of educational opportunities, limited access to technology, insufficient resources, and poor infrastructure further hinder researchers.

In 2015, Owusu et al. conducted research on how to build research capacity in African institutions. The study identified attributes of research leadership deemed important in the African context. The attributes included practical skills such as vision and strategic thinking, inspirational qualities, self-management, grant proposal writing, and time management. The study emphasized the need to incorporate opportunities for developing these attributes into academic programs to promote research leadership.

Some of the cultural considerations they explored as factors affecting research leadership in the context of developing African countries were

  1. Correct research staff compensation
  2. Transparency in the research environment, in particular with the handling of research funds/resources
  3. Valuing the contributions of individual team members and willingness to accept personal views of others

These have been cited as critical in supporting accessibility to research leadership roles in developing countries.

These support the views of the survey participants, who cited funding availability as one of the critical challenges affecting research. Our investigations concluded with the statement that the challenge of lack of funding in developed countries exists. More studies would be required to identify whether the challenge is a lack of funding resources or, rather, due to the cultural considerations listed by Owusu et al., 2015 and the poor management skills and leadership styles of existing researchers.


Gender and Social Inclusion

Owusu et al, 2017 states that due to the historically patriarchal nature of African societies, there is still a paucity of female researchers and, ultimately, a shortage of female research leaders generally. To reduce this phenomenon, it was suggested that resources be allocated to support women in research so that they can balance work and familial roles.

Abouzeid et al, 2022 describes the barriers to research leadership in three categories. The complex interplay of these barriers supports and enables good research leadership.

  1. Researcher level
  2. Institutional level
  3. Structural level

Efforts to foster leadership among researchers from developing countries should prioritize enhancing education access, providing ample funding and resources, facilitating mentorship and networking, and forging partnerships with global research institutions. Amidst financial challenges and limited funding, a comprehensive strategy is vital, including bolstering international collaborations, exploring innovative funding avenues, raising visibility, and tailoring support to meet specific needs. Additionally, expanding training opportunities for early-career scientists through funding for short-term international stays and travel grants can aid in this endeavor. Increasing awareness about private investment funds and startup development, widening funding access, fostering international collaborations, and facilitating knowledge exchange would significantly encourage researchers from developing nations to pursue leadership roles.

Considering these considerations, challenges must be overcome at all levels to make leadership roles accessible in developing countries.



  1.  Abouzeid, M., Muthanna, A., Nuwayhid, I., El-Jardali, F., Connors, P., Habib, R. R., … & Jabbour, S. (2022). Barriers to sustainable health research leadership in the Global South: Time for a Grand Bargain on localization of research leadership?. Health research policy and systems, 20(1), 136.
  2. Greco, V., Politi, K., Eisenbarth, S., Colón-Ramos, D., Giraldez, A. J., Bewersdorf, J., & Berg, D. N. (2022). A group approach to growing as a principal investigator. Current Biology, 32(11), R498-R504.
  3. Owusu, F., Kalipeni, E., Awortwi, N., & Kiiru, J. M. M. (2017). Building research capacity for African institutions: confronting the research leadership gap and lessons from African research leaders. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 20(2), 220-245.
  4. Saltmarsh, S., Sutherland-Smith, W., & Randell-Moon, H. (2011). ‘Inspired and assisted’, or ‘berated and destroyed’? Research leadership, management and performativity in troubled times. Ethics and Education, 6(3), 293-306.



About the Authors

Gillian Rowe is doctoral researcher at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She is also a research scientist at the Scientific Research Council (SRC), Jamaica. Her scientific interests are microbiology, molecular plant-pathogen interactions, the soil microbiome and bioinformatics. You can find her on X: @RoweGill.

Amarachi Queendaline Ezeoke is a Nigerian plant scientist who holds a master’s degree in Plant Biotechnology, Physiology, and Genetics from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany, a PhD student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and a 2024 Plantae Fellow. She specializes in investigating the molecular mechanisms that govern plant growth in model organisms. Her research integrates molecular biology and genetics to uncover protein interactions influencing plant architecture. You can find her on X: @_kwindalyn_.

Dennis Baffour-Awuah is a 2024 Plantae Editor, and holds an MPhil in Nuclear Agriculture from the University of Ghana, where he specialized in Mutation Breeding and Plant Biotechnology. He is a passionate science communicator who enjoys promoting scientific innovations. You can find him on X: @dennisgameplay.