Creating a global observatory for health

TDR news item
12 September 2014

An article in Science has outlined approaches to developing a global health R&D observatory. The authors recommend adopting the latest approaches in data mining to maximize the collection, synthesis and interpretation of data, and to minimise the cost of bringing the data together.

Researchers at a Shanghai laboratory
WHO/TDR/Simon Linn

There is currently no global health R&D map that provides a comprehensive picture of research funding, ongoing research and results that could be used to guide the allocation of the limited available funding. Consequently the Member States of WHO have called for the establishment of a global observatory on health R&D to address this lack of information.

As more of the administration of R&D becomes digital, more of it comes online on the websites of individual researchers, their institutions and the research funders. This provides raw data but adds little knowledge. For a global R&D observatory to be feasible, the authors recommend automating the coding and subsequent association of available data so that research funding can be recorded locally in whatever form suits that context but, through automated translation, be reported against a global standard.

The authors call on funders to make data sets they own open to others, as well as a culture shift to create greater transparency in the R&D system by publishing more information on current research that is open access, allowing automated reading by machines such as web crawlers.

One of the biggest challenges noted is developing capacity for collecting and reporting data on R&D funding when only 37% of countries are currently able to publicly report data of this type. Indeed, establishing an observatory grew from discussions about non-commercial areas of health research in the neglected tropical diseases in poor countries, and this is the initial focus of the observatory. However, market failure impacting R&D is not only an issue in the prevention and treatment of diseases of poor countries. As antimicrobial resistance continues to rise, the pipeline for new antibiotics is not supplying enough new drugs. So among other factors, the authors note that new financial incentives and more public money will be needed to cover the risk of R&D for antibiotic development, increasing the need to ensure efficiency in the public R&D system.

The article was written by Rob Terry, TDR’s Manager of Knowledge Management; José F Salm from the Stela Institute, ESAG at the Santa Catarina State University in Brazil; and Claudia Nannei and Christopher Dye from WHO.

For more information on the development of the WHO Global Health R&D Observatory, please contact

Taghreed Adam
E-mail:adamt@who.int

For more information on this article, please contact

Robert Terry
E-mail:terryr@who.int