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During a meeting of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco in March, in Prague, Czech Republic, an important new scheme was launched, the Research Assistance Matching (RAM) Project. This is an innovative online programme to facilitate tobacco control research collaboration by connecting researchers and providing them with a platform to share and exchange information. The purpose of the project is to enhance the spread and quality of tobacco control research in developing countries by: helping researchers in such countries to increase their access to the expertise and experience of the international tobacco control research community, and assisting international colleagues to identify potential partners in developing countries. RAM is currently supported by the Syrian Centre for Tobacco Studies, the Institute for Global Tobacco Control of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and GLOBALink.
The initial rationale for the project stemmed from the fact that many researchers in developing countries are not integrated within the international research community, are not part of any international collaboration, and lack the required local expertise to support their research activity. When faced with difficult research questions in the past, these researchers have been forced to seek out expert advice by searching the internet and/or relevant scientific publications for expert names and contact information. However, since most experts are already overstretched by their existing workload, many of these requests for help remained unanswered or were dealt with superficially. However, there are still many experts who are willing to commit some of their time to help a worthy researcher from a developing country, and a recent assessment of over 150 tobacco control researchers found that around 30% were interested in offering mentorship. What has been lacking is a medium to channel credible research assistance seekers in less developed countries to experts willing to help.
The idea of RAM was first suggested in 2000, when one of the current collaborators on the project suggested a science-aid type of programme, indicating the need for an easily accessible system whereby scientists in developing countries can talk to individual experts in more advanced countries. Initial web development began soon afterwards and today the internet based application has been integrated within the Global Tobacco Research Network website (www.tobaccoresearch.net/ram). The internet application is designed to facilitate initial contact and matching between assistance seeking and assistance offering counterparts, as well as to provide a platform for continuous collaboration. The application contains personalised project pages, a categorised project directory, an expert directory, participant profiles, the ability to upload files, and direct messaging between up to 10 project collaborators.
Clearly, in order for this resource to reach its full potential, it must be broadly promoted and utilised by researchers in developing countries, as well as by experts. There is no question that many researchers in developing countries will benefit from participation in RAM. However, this project can also benefit experts in developed countries by providing a chance to forge international partnerships, seek international funding, and have the ability to collect data from remote areas and populations at little expense. Experts may need to be assured that they can freely set or change their level of engagement in mentoring relationships within RAM and even withdraw from it without having to give explanations or disclosure of this information. Currently, RAM is designed as a minimum intervention programme, where the collaborating parties are the only ones to decide on the form and nature of their partnership.