BACKGROUND: Two major initiatives that were set up to support and co-ordinate global health research efforts have been largely discontinued in recent years: the Global Forum for Health Research and World Health Organization's Department for Research Policy and Cooperation. These developments provide an interesting case study into the factors that contribute to the sustainability of initiatives to support and co-ordinate global health research in the 21st century.
METHODS: We reviewed the history of attempts to govern, support or co-ordinate research in global health. Moreover, we studied the changes and shifts in funding flows attributed to global health research. This allowed us to map the structure of the global health research system, as it has evolved under the increased funding contributions of the past decade. Bearing in mind its structure, core functions and dynamic nature, we proposed a framework on how to effectively support the system to increase its efficiency.
RESULTS: Based on our framework, which charted the structure and function of the global health research system and exposed places and roles for many stakeholders within the system, five basic needs emerged: (i) to co-ordinate funding among donors more effectively; (ii) to prioritize among many research ideas; (iii) to quickly recognize results of successful research; (iv) to ensure broad and rapid dissemination of results and their accessibility; and (v) to evaluate return on investments in health research.
CONCLUSION: The global health research system has evolved rapidly and spontaneously. It has not been optimally efficient, but it is possible to identify solutions that could improve this. There are already examples of effective responses for the need of prioritization of research questions (eg, the CHNRI method), quick recognition of important research (eg, systems used by editors of the leading journals) and rapid and broadly accessible publication of the new knowledge (eg, PLoS One journal as an example). It is still necessary to develop tools that could assist donors to co-ordinate funding and ensure more equity between areas in the provided support, and to evaluate the value for money invested in health research.