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MRC/DFID African Research Leader scheme 2020

Please note this opportunity is now CLOSED.
View all OPEN opportunities

  • Status: Closed
  • Open date: 16 Jun 2020
  • Closing date: 8 Sep 2020 16:00 GMT+1
  • Type: Grants, Researcher-led

Please note change to previous calls - the African Research Leader candidate should now apply as the Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant and the UK-based mentor should be included as the first named Co-Investigator (Co-I). If successful, the award will be made to and administered by the African Research Organisation.

The UK Medical Research Council and the UK Department for International Development announce a further call for proposals for the prestigious African Research Leader awards.

This MRC/ DFID jointly funded scheme aims to strengthen research leadership across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) by attracting and retaining exceptionally talented individuals who will lead high quality programmes of research on key global health issues pertinent to SSA. The African Research Leader (ARL; PI) should be supported by an enthusiastic local research environment and by a strong linkage with a UK partner (i.e. the UK Co-Investigator; Co-I).


Key Elements 

Funding Available

Tenure of Award

How to Apply

Assessment Process

Key Dates



Lack of grant funding and research infrastructure in many sub-Saharan African countries can make it difficult to attract and retain talented African scientists and as a result, African nationals are currently under-represented as leaders in medical research in the region. The ARL scheme invites applications from African researchers already based in sub-Saharan African countries and from those individuals currently working overseas who wish to return to SSA. We would particularly welcome high-quality applications from female scientists and from investigators across a broad range of disciplines.

The scheme is open to talented and enthusiastic African investigators working in all biomedical and health research areas within the MRC/DFID remit on global health. A series of short case studies demonstrates the range of challenges being tackled by current ARL award holders (note, these awards were made when the UK mentor was the named PI). It is important that applications address the key health problems relevant to national and regional health needs.

The African Research Leader will be supported by a UK based mentor as part of the partnership between their African and UK institutions.

Awards provide support for up to five years. The grant package includes a potential contribution to the African Research Leader’s salary (up to 100% in the first years); funds for a programme of research; funds for development activities and for collaborative activities between the African and UK institutions.  

Key elements of the Scheme

Strong applications will meet the four key elements of the scheme, namely:

  • a talented ‘rising star’ African Research Leader candidate,
  • a high-quality research programme proposal,
  • a research-conducive academic African environment / institution,
  • a firm partnership with a UK partner institution

Each should be described in the case for support which will be attached to the online application as indicated in the ‘How to apply’ section. Please refer to the detailed Case for Support guidance on how to structure this document. Further details on each of these elements are provided below, please read each section carefully.

The African Research Leader Candidate – a rising star

The ARL scheme seeks to support African researchers already based in sub-Saharan African countries and those individuals currently working overseas who wish to return to SSA.

The focus of the scheme is on ‘rising star’ African Research Leaders. Candidates will be high-calibre, early-to-mid career researchers, who show clear ability to cultivate a dynamic and innovative research group, likely to attract increasing international recognition and external funding by the end of the award.

The African candidate will have completed a PhD, will be well-qualified for academic research having spent at least the last 3 years in active research, be building a track record of independence in their selected field and demonstrating promise as a future research leader. Outstanding ARL candidates who do not have a PhD but who are educated to Master's level and have substantial research experience, as evidenced by their publication record, may also be considered in exceptional circumstances.

Applications from women are particularly encouraged. Candidates wishing to combine their research with domestic responsibilities may seek the award on a part-time basis. The terms and conditions of award make allowances for maternity/paternity leave. Allowance will also be made to those researchers whose career has been affected, either by a late start or by interruption, for personal or family reasons.

As a ‘rising star’ the African candidate will hold an established academic position in an African research institution, be developing a research team and be undertaking original research. This may be evidenced through a growing track record of staff and student supervision; through an expanding portfolio of lead author publications, by securing local or national funding and by attracting recognition through prizes and awards.

Researchers who already have a well-established record of securing significant international research grant funding or have reached a level of seniority e.g. professor or head of department should not apply to this scheme. These individuals may apply at any time as a co-investigator together with a UK-based principal investigator to any of our response mode funding schemes, and as principal investigator to the MRC Applied Global Health Research Board, depending on the focus of his/her research.

If a candidate is returning to work in SSA they are expected to make their own arrangements for obtaining a tenured academic position in an eligible African research institution if one is not already held (and should be in post by the start of any award). The successful ARL candidate would be expected to continue their appointment at the African research institution beyond the term of the ARL award. There are no UK residence eligibility restrictions for this scheme as the ARL candidate will be based in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to supporting scientific collaboration with the partner UK institution the scheme offers the African research leader an opportunity to spend time (up to 3 months) for further career development activities, training or skills development (eg research management/ mentoring/ publication writing/ industry internship etc) in either country.

 MRC/DFID aim to foster research leadership in a breadth of academic environments; it is therefore unlikely that several awards will be made to any one institution in a single call.

Proposed research programme

The scheme is open to talented and enthusiastic investigators working in all health and biomedical research areas. Priority will be given to applications that address key health problems relevant to national and regional health needs in sub-Saharan Africa.

We welcome high quality applications from investigators across a broad range of research activities within the MRC/DFID global health remits, please refer to MRC’s and DFID’s strategic priority pages.

Activities can be focussed on any major health priority in Sub-Saharan Africa including:

  • Research focused on the prevention and management of non-communicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and mental health.
  • Prevention and control of infectious diseases (major diseases such as malaria, HIV and TB), neglected tropical diseases (including snakebite), zoonotic and emerging diseases, co-infections and issues associated with emerging resistance to current drugs.
  • Multimorbidity, i.e., the co-existence of two or more chronic conditions, including long-term infectious and non-communicable diseases and mental health conditions.
  • Basic, discovery health research approaches, experimental medicine providing mechanistic insight to human diseases, epidemiological (social, genetic, immunological) research, prevention research;
  • Applied research approaches, including public health, health systems, health policy, and implementation research;
  • Research targeting vulnerable or disadvantaged groups including refugees, people living in informal settlements, those living with disability, neonates, children, adolescents or the elderly.

The ARL scheme will not support clinical or health related trials including phase I safety, proof of principle, efficacy or effectiveness trials of any new medicinal product, device, vaccine or other clinical intervention. There are specific strategic streams of funding available for such research proposals. However, it will support observational programmes of epidemiological, laboratory, field and clinical research and early stage developmental or formative research which may be associated with or lead to future health intervention evaluation. If this is the case, the outcomes of the research and how these will be anticipated to inform future work should be made clear.

In recognition of the current COVID-19 pandemic, proposals contributing to the understanding, prevention and/or management of the COVID-19 outbreak are welcomed. We do not expect to only receive proposals in COVID-19 related research, however we do require an honest assessment of how the pandemic might affect your research plans. Please note, COVID-19 related proposals will be assessed according to the scheme specific assessment criteria in a competitive manner with wider non-COVID-19 research proposals.

The majority of the proposed research is expected to take place in the African environment. The African Research Leader (PI) should be supported by a robust research environment in their own local institution and by a strong linkage with a UK partner (Co-I). The resources requested should be specific, justified, and relevant to the research proposed.

This scheme is not primarily intended to support PhD students in obtaining their degree. PhD overseas fees, allowances and stipends will not be supported. However, if the ARL candidate does propose to involve PhD students to deliver elements of the work within their research programme, it will be necessary to explain how the supervision and input of those students will be managed to ensure their training is protected.  

The African Research Institution

The scheme is offered to candidates employed by eligible institutions based in sub-Saharan Africa, with sufficient research capacity to manage and deliver research. This can include:

  • Higher education institutions based in sub-Saharan Africa: A university or institution based in an LMIC with degree awarding powers recognised by the government in which the organisation is based. This includes MRC Units at LSHTM in Uganda and the Gambia.
  • Research institutes based in sub-Saharan Africa: A research focused institution based in an LMIC funded by the government of the country in which the organisation is based or by a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation.

If your Research Organisation has not previously received funding from the MRC, or you are unsure of the eligibility of your organisation please contact the office.

The PI’s host African Institution must offer a clear research and career development environment with appropriate laboratory, field or clinical facilities to enable the research activities proposed as well as supportive administrative functions. The candidate should be able to draw on mentoring from senior individuals, and their career development be nurtured. Where appropriate, fostering of scientific links across sub-Saharan African institutions is encouraged.

The African Institution will be expected to provide a strong commitment to the continuity of appointment of the researcher beyond the term of the award, such as a tenured position or equivalent. There is also an expectation that over time, the African Institution would increase its level of financial support of the individual (if not 100% from the outset).

The African Institution may build into the application a funding contribution for institutional development to support a set of institutional strategic objectives, the outputs of which should be verifiable and be able to be monitored. This could include capacity strengthening such as improved finance, data or research management, and professional training. Tools and good practice documents on capacity strengthening in low and middle-income countries are available on the TDR/ESSENCE website.

Partnership between the African and UK Institutions

This scheme aims to encourage a research-supportive environment for the developing African Research Leader, both in the host African institution but importantly involving strong support from and access to expertise in a UK academic research institution.

The African Research Leadership proposal should therefore be submitted in partnership with a UK Co-Investigator offering relevant opportunities, such as senior or complementary scientific expertise, skill strengthening, discipline widening, technology sharing, mentoring, etc. The UK partner institution may be any eligible UK research institution, including MRC Institutes and University Units based in the UK.

The individual scientific partnership between the ARL candidate and the UK mentor must be underpinned EITHER by an established track record of partnership at the institutional level OR a clear plan for developing and sustaining long-term cross-institutional collaboration. Previous partnering need not be in exactly the same area of research proposed in the application however the relevant strengths that each institution brings to the research proposed should be indicated.

There is no restriction on the number of applications submitted by each institution however it is highly unlikely that we will make several awards to any one organisation.

Funding available

Funding for the scheme is provided by the UK MRC and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Awards will provide support for up to 5 years and the MRC Contribution should not exceed £750k in total.

The majority of the funding will be for work taking place in the African research institution and so would be eligible for full economic costing (FEC) at 100% and must be entered as exceptions. Any costs specifically for the UK research institution will be provided on the basis of 80% FEC as usual. Please refer to the MRC Guidance for Applicants.

The total award package is anticipated to include the following elements:

1. The African Research Leader (PI) will be expected to commit a significant proportion of their time (50-100%), over the entire duration of the ARL award, to delivering the research programme. The African research institution will be the employer of the African Research Leader. A contribution to the personal salary for the ARL may be requested. This may be up to 100% in the first years where a persuasive case is made. The expectation is that over time, the African research institution will demonstrate their commitment to the ARL by taking increasing responsibility for providing the salary. In the final year of award this should be at least 50% of the personal salary.

2. Resources to undertake the proposed research programme, which could include research support staff, research consumables and equipment, travel costs (between partner institutions), and other necessary costs. MRC will support indirect and estates costs for organisations based in LMICs. Each LMIC RO can request indirect costs up to the value of 20% of their direct costs. Overseas student fees and stipends for PhD students contributing to the research will not be provided.

3. The award has provision for a personal development element for the ARL candidate, to support leadership development, strategic planning, research management and continuing professional development or other similar activities. As part of this, support may be requested for the opportunity to spend time (up to 3 months in total) in an organisation other than the host African research institution. This may be at the UK partner institution, or any other organisation including a biomedical/pharmaceutical company where skills and knowledge may be strengthened. This element is to provide a concentrated period of training/career development that cannot be achieved effectively within the African research institution. This would be in addition to collaborative scientific visits to the UK. Justification for the placement should be robust and details should be submitted on the placement template.  andidates should be prepared at interview to discuss in detail any career development visit proposed.

4. Additionally, an institutional development element is available for the African research institution to support a set of institutional objectives the outputs of which should be verifiable and be able to be monitored. Support can be requested for help to strengthen institutional capacity to host and sustain competitive research groups. This could include for example improved finance management, data or research management and other professional training. Tools and good practice documents on capacity strengthening in low and middle-income countries are available on the TDR/ESSENCE website.

A salary contribution for the UK mentor may be requested although we would expect this to be kept to a minimum. Other named SSA-based investigators are permitted on the application where they bring expertise from another discipline required to fully address the health challenge identified.

Tenure of award

The ARL award is intended to provide longer term support and will normally run for 4-5 years with a maximum tenure of five years. Candidates wishing to combine their research with domestic responsibilities may seek the award on a part-time basis over a maximum of five years. The terms and conditions of award include provision for maternity/paternity leave.

How to apply

Please note change to previous calls - the African Research Leader candidate should now apply as the Principal Investigator (PI) on the grant and the UK-based mentor should be included as the first named Co-Investigator (Co-I).

Unlike previous ARL rounds and the majority of MRC’s funding routes, the ARL award will be made directly to the PI (i.e. the ARL) based within the African Research Institution. Please see ‘The African Research Institution’ section, above, for eligibility criteria.

Full applications should be submitted using the Research Councils’ Joint electronic Submission (Je-S) System. Access J-eS guidance.

Applicants are reminded of their responsibility to engage with their Research Office and discuss the time period required by the host RO to complete all the necessary application checks before completing the final electronic submission (through Je-S), to MRC. MRC have noted that on rare occasions, some applicants have not allowed their RO adequate time to complete all the required checks and electronic processes to enable the successful submission of applications prior to the deadline. It should also be noted that MRC will not consider permitting the submission of any late applications, where the applicant has failed to allow their Research Office adequate time to complete the required checks and complete the final Je-S submission to MRC before the advertised call closes.

Je-S Registration:

All investigators and their institutions will need to be registered on the Je-S system. This process is different depending on where your Research Organisation (RO) is based. UK Co-Investigators should already be able to select their RO from the Je-S database. If you are based at an African RO, and have previously submitted an application to the MRC, your RO should also be listed on Je-S. If your RO has not previously submitted an application to the MRC, you must self-register your RO before you can start your application. This organisation self-registration process can be initiated by visiting the Je-S login page, and using the link highlighted in yellow below.

Following completion of the Overseas RO self-registration process, the overseas PI should navigate again to the Je-S login page to create their Je-S account via https://je-s.rcuk.ac.uk/JeS2WebLoginSite/CreateAccount.aspx.

Following the selection of the ‘Create an Account’ option, the Investigator will be asked to accept the terms and conditions of use of the Je-S System. Following this acceptance of Je-S T&Cs, the PI will be asked to complete a Je-S Account check (to ensure they do not already hold a Je-S Account). If no account exists for the Investigator, applicants are then advised to select the option to ‘Skip ORCID Identifier’ process (this can be requested at a later date, from within the created Je-S account).

Following selection of the ‘Skip ORCID identifier’, applicants should ensure they select the ‘Research Proposal’ account type applicable to An Applicant on a Standard or Outline Proposal (E.G. PI/Co-I).

Je-S Account applicants should then input their organisation and personal details and submit the request for an Je-S Account. Please note, accounts need to be activated (by the account holder), and accepted by Je-S Helpdesk, before the PI/Co-I is selectable from the Je-S Database.

Queries regarding Je-S RO Self-Registration, creation of Je-S Accounts and general Je-S enquiries, should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk via email (JeSHelp@je-s.ukri.org).

Investigators are advised to create their Je-S account as early as possible. PIs and Co-Is will need to create their own individual accounts on the Je-S system. Co-Is can then be added to the proposal and granted editor access by the PI. Please note, when the Co-I has been added to the Je-S application (as Co-Investigator), the Co-I will automatically receive Edit rights to the application (please note, Je-S does NOT allow multiple editors to edit the Je-S form at the same time).

Please contact the Je-S helpdesk if further guidance is required.

Creating your application on Je-S:

When you create your proposal in Je-S you will need to enter the following options to ensure that your proposal is considered under the correct funding scheme:

Select Council: MRC

Select Document Type: Standard Proposal

Select Scheme: Research Grant

Select Call/Type/Mode: African Research Leaders 2020

Please complete all sections of the application. General guidance can be found in the MRC Guidance for Applicants, which will guide you through the standard processes for preparing a proposal, costing your proposals and any ethical and regulatory requirements that may apply to the research.

Applications must be submitted through Je-S (to the MRC), by 16:00 (BST) on 8 September 2020.

Preparing the Case for Support:

The case for support is prepared as a separate attachment and should be a maximum of nineteen A4 sides in length, including references, using Arial 11 pt typeface with margins of 2cms on all sides. Applicants must follow the African Research Leader (ARL) Case for Support guidance when completing this section. Applicants are advised to also refer to the assessment criteria for the scheme.

Resources Requested:

All costs must be justified appropriately within your Justification of Resources attachment.

Please refer to the MRC Guidance for Applicants for costing of applications. Full financial details will be required. Please be reminded that this scheme is not primarily intended to support PhD studentships in obtaining their degree and PhD student fees will not be covered by the award.

Enter all costs requested, identifying the African and UK costs separately.

African costs

  • Costs incurred by African research institutions are eligible for 100% FEC and these should be registered as 'Exceptions'.
  • Please also include details of the increasing commitment of the African research institution in taking on the Research Leader’s salary.
  • Capital items cannot be registered as exceptions however to claim 100% of this cost you should indicate that you are seeking the full amount from the Research Council.

UK costs

  • Normal FEC rules (80%) will apply for UK costs.

A contribution towards the Estates and Indirect Costs (calculated as up to 20% of the African institution’s direct costs) can also be requested and should be included within the ‘Directly Incurred Other Costs’ section as ‘Exceptions’ and indicated as “Contribution towards African Research Institution’s Estates and Indirect Costs”.

For this scheme it is not necessary to obtain prior approval from the office for overseas exceptional costs. You are therefore not required to attach a covering letter to confirm this.

MRC institute costs

If the application involves an MRC institute, then it will only be eligible for directly incurred costs (at 100% FEC) as usual. Please refer to the appropriate section in the MRC Guidance for Applicants for costing of applications involving MRC units/institutes.

Further advice can be sought from the research support office at the unit/institute or alternatively contact the office.

Proposals involving animal use

Please refer to the appropriate section in the MRC Guidance for Applicants. We ask all applicants to take into consideration the guidance set out in section 4 Proposals involving animal use.

MRC has published specific guidance on the requirements when using animals overseas.

Ethics and approvals:

Full guidance on ethics and approvals can be found in the MRC Guidance for Applicants. We ask all applicants to take into consideration the guidance set out in section 5.2.2 Research involving human participants in lower- and middle-income countries.

What to submit:

Your application will consist of the online Je-S proposal form and the following attachments to it:

  • Proposal cover letter (optional, maximum of 2 pages)
  • Separate CVs (maximum of 2 pages) required for PI, Co-Is and each named researcher
  • List of Publications (maximum of 1 page) required for PI, Co-Is and each named researcher
  • Case for Support (maximum 19 pages; refer to guidance)
  • Justification of Resources (maximum of 2 pages)
  • Data Management Plan (maximum of 3 pages)
  • Supporting letters (PDF copy of signed letters, please use Je-S attachment type ‘Letter of Support’) from:
  • The Vice Chancellor or equivalent at the African research institution (mandatory, maximum of 2 pages), to include:

a) declaration that it is a Government-owned/not-for profit institution;

b) statement about the research supportive environment available at the institution;

c) commitment to the continuity of support for the ARL;  

d) formal confirmation that the institution agrees to the roles and responsibilities as detailed in the application

When uploading the document as ‘Letter of Support’, please describe the document as ARL Host Institute Declaration’.

  • The placement organisation confirming their willingness to host the Research Leader’s proposed training visit plus details of the proposed placement using the placement template (if appropriate, maximum of 2 pages) – as one PDF.

If uploading this ‘Optional’ document as ‘Letter of Support’, please describe the document as ‘Placement Confirmation’

  • Key stakeholders e.g. Ministry of Health (if appropriate, maximum of 2 pages).

If uploading this ‘Optional’ document as ‘Letter of Support’, please describe the document as ‘Key Stakeholder’ – (Detail name of Stakeholder)

Please read the MRC Guidance for Applicants, which will provide you with the page limit for the attachments and guide you through the standard processes for preparing a proposal, costing your proposals and any ethical and regulatory requirements that may apply to the research. Please refer to the scheme specific guidance in preparing your case for support.

Assessment process

Applications will be peer reviewed by external reviewers and considered by an independent expert Panel. Please see the specific assessment criteria for this scheme. The Panel will shortlist candidates for interview. The Co-I mentor from the UK partner institution will also be invited to the interview with the candidate for Research Leader.

The reviewers’ comments are fed back (verbatim but unattributed) to all candidates after the shortlisting process. Candidates whose proposals are shortlisted will have the opportunity to provide written comment on their reviewers’ feedback prior to the interview.

Shortlisted candidates will normally be notified four weeks before the interview date. Interviews will take place in March 2021 and it is highly likely that these will take place virtually. If the situation changes dramatically then face-to-face interviews will take place in London. Reasonable travel (economy class) and accommodation costs will be met by the MRC however it is the responsibility of candidates to ensure that they have the necessary visa to attend for the interview.

We reserve the right not to process an application if the scheme’s eligibility criteria and remit are not met or if the application has not been completed in full or is received after the submission deadline.

Monitoring and evaluation

Applicants are asked to note that there will be specific reporting requirements to monitor the progress of the ARL awards. One of the key facets of the scheme is the continued engagement with the funders. Further details will be provided following award.

Key dates



Call open for applications in Je-S

16 June 2020

Application deadline

8 September 2020 (16:00 BST)

Peer review (external)

Oct-Nov 2020

Shortlisting Panel meeting

Mid December 2020


March 2021

Decision to applicants

April 2021



All administrative and scientific enquiries should be directed to Samia Majid:

Email: ARLadmin@mrc.ukri.org

Enquiries relating to the completion of the electronic application should be directed to the Je-S helpdesk:

Email: JeSHelp@je-s.ukri.org