The government must urgently reconsider UK Research and Innovation funding cuts

In his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2020, UK prime minister Boris Johnson declared that “no-one is safe until we are all safe” in reference to our shared vulnerability and humanity in the face of a global pandemic. Over the course of the past year, the value of international cooperation on human and planetary health has become ever clearer. Indeed, we predict that when Johnson hosts the UN Climate Change Conference later this year, he will emphasise that countries shouldn’t go it alone. Our fates are interdependent and, as such, international collaboration, including on global health research, is vital and of benefit to individuals, countries, and the global community alike.

Hence the shocking announcement last week of impending, unprecedented, and brutal cuts to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Official Development Assistance (ODA) related spending, which seems not only counter-productive, but an impeccably ill-timed own goal.  

These cuts amount to a budget of £125m and result in a funding gap of £120m between “allocations and commitments to grant holders.” Compared to the £37 billion to be spent on the UK’s test, trace, and isolate programme for covid-19, this may seem like a relatively small sum. Yet, as a result of the cuts, UKRI has announced it will not be liable for the ODA-related costs of new activities of existing grants after July this year, will be unable to provide funding for the majority of awards beyond July, and will support no new awards where proposals have been submitted. While the prospects for new funding rounds appear remote, the challenges to affected research groups is immediate.

UKRI-funded research programmes address some of the world’s most complex and challenging global health problems. Cutting back on this research damages the capacities of all of us to provide evidence for tackling these challenges and improving the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalised in every society, including in the UK. We increasingly understand that health risks and vulnerabilities are shared globally, as are the solutions developed the world over, in part with UKRI-supported research, to address emerging health threats. Take away the research, and policy makers are left flying blind.

The nature of the announcement itself left questions as to the basis upon which decisions would be made on existing grant commitments (who would be affected and when), as well as legal uncertainties. The larger question for the research community is what evidence the government considered in making these cuts. In December 2020, Johnson stated that his decisions in relation to a global health problem (covid-19) “must and will be guided by the science.” Yet we are left wondering if an independent assessment of the impact of the UKRI cuts on future “science” to guide global health decision-making was undertaken, and if the assessors’ advice offered to government was followed.

In the absence of a publicly available rigorous assessment, we offer three reflections and make one request to those who find this decision egregious and damaging. 

Firstly, the UK is seen to punch above its weight on global health research. A report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health, published in February 2020, recognised the UK’s leading position in health research within the G7 group of countries, and highlighted the substantial benefits realised from collaborative, interdisciplinary research in global health, including in the fields of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), maternal and neonatal health, and mental health. Solutions identified through UKRI supported research in these and other health areas bring benefits to people everywhere—including the UK. Why retreat now?

Secondly, while the UK public may be divided on the question of aid, they are generally supportive of health spending. A recent poll by the British Foreign Policy Group found that within the suite of foreign aid and development activities, spending on health (and vaccinations) attracted the highest level of support (76% were in favour of spending in this area). Research undertaken by British universities in collaboration with our partners worldwide is crucial to ensure that investing in this area continues to both support innovation and achieve maximum impact.

Thirdly, in light of the contributions of UKRI-supported research, we worry about the message that the cuts send. The message that it sends to other countries—not just about “Global Britain’s” engagement in global health research, but also about its true ambitions in development cooperation. The Integrated Review of Defence and Foreign Policy leaked this week is said to indicate that the UK “will gradually move towards providing UK expertise”—but if that expertise is not acquired through collaborative research, where will it be derived from? What message does it send to research partners with whom we have been seeking to build relationships of trust and equality? And do the cuts send a message to the next generation of researchers of largely empty promises of support to science and health research in the context of international cooperation?

We are convinced that everyone will suffer from the announced cuts. We have invited global health researchers and their partners to demand that Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab reconsider the UKRI decision and the decision to suspend the UK’s commitment to invest 0.7% of GNI in ODA. Over the past 48 hours over 2500 people have signed this open letter—including scholars from over 35 UK Universities, and from global health researchers in all regions of the world. A range of organisations across the global health system have also signed the letter—including Action for Global Health (a constituency of over 50 UK-based global health organisations), BRAC School of Public Health (Bangladesh), the NCD Alliance, the World Cancer Research Fund—as well as from the development sector more broadly (Overseas Development Institute, Institute for Development Studies). The signatories also include policy makers and policy-influencers who increasingly co-create knowledge-based solutions on which progress relies. We invite other to join this call to reverse the UK decision and instead demand stepped up investments in research that arguably provides the basis to ensure health for all.

Kent Buse, Director, Healthier Societies Program, The George Institute for Global Health

Sarah Hawkes, Director, Centre for Gender and Global Health, Institute for Global Health, University College London

Competing interests: none declared.