The allocation of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has enabled the UK to play a major role in tackling the global challenges embodied in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The 2020 budget across UKRI for ODA research projects was £422M.  This year it is only £125M, necessitating swingeing cuts. This unprecedented action is resulting in the truncation and termination of existing projects. The damage this year will be disproportionate to the sum that needs to be clawed out of currently functional projects and will put many at severe risk of under performance.
We are the architects of two “grassroots” letters, with 5000 and 4000 signatories, respectively. The signatories collectively represent over 140 UK universities and 50 UK organisations and networks, joined by colleagues from over 200 organisations abroad. They also include members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) as well as early career researchers. They reflect the groundswell of rage and disappointment and genuine concern for the impacts of the wounded and abandoned projects. Signatories have been sharing their stories and fury, some have resigned from senior posts of responsibility, associated with directing UKRI funds. These have only served to underline how and why we need a reversal of this decision. We summarise ten reasons why these cuts should be immediately reversed.
Why we need to reinstate ODA research funding
- These projects work with so many more constituencies than a “research” community. There are over 800 projects, rooted in real world problems, with partnerships across academic institutions, practitioners (governmental and non-governmental organisations) and industry, making a difference focussed on accelerating progress towards solutions and strategies to enhance and sustain development.
- These interdisciplinary and intersectoral projects aim to solve complex and interconnected 21st century problems. The covid-19 pandemic has taught us that we can’t successfully implement technical solutions to global challenges without addressing the underlying inequalities. Scientific technological problem solving is embedded in programmes that also address the social contexts associated with gender, race, and socio-economic status that act as barriers to progress. Research terminated mid-project severs interdisciplinary collaboration and prevents coherent understanding.
- Problems are global: and so should be the networks that understand and solve them. The distribution of infrastructure, funding, and training to address these problems is disproportionately found in North American and Europe. UKRI funding provides a unique opportunity to widen access to the opportunities such infrastructure and funding creates, building reciprocal capacities in both the UK and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
- Research is about learning what works and amplifying success.Typically we hear about the end point, but getting to the end point relies on building networks, pooling talent, strengthening capacity, engagement in discussion, and critical analysis along the way. This process has enabled UK research to lead and benefit from research in areas such as vaccine development, tackling climate change, and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Abruptly truncating funded projects kills that process dead. For example, the very source of funding the government wants to cut was used to support the early development of the Oxford vaccine from which we are all now benefitting. Linking this funding to research takes advantage of capacity to learn lessons across projects and amplify lessons through time.
- The advances we make benefit UK plc. The pressure of solving important problems in a resource constrained environment can be the grit that creates pearls of advance to be applied elsewhere to the benefit of UK industries and infrastructure. For example, ODA funded research projects have used novel enzymes to reduce industrial waste in a cost effective way, developed algorithms to remotely detect problematic seaweed invasions, and developed low-cost wastewater technology subsequently implemented in the UK.The mess we create by making these cuts
- The cuts ultimately impact the most vulnerable and marginalised in society where multiple global challenges are acutely concentrated.
- The lack of consultation with partners overseas makes this a “soft power” own goal for the UK. In a year when we need to demonstrate we can “walk the walk” as well as say the right things, we are surrendering 800 projects across the globe, leaving the UK open to challenges of being an unreliable and untrustworthy partner in the 69 countries where it is collaborating on these projects. This will undermine our credibility on the world stage at the very moment we need to strike trade deals, negotiate communiqués, and agree ambitious, legally-binding climate targets.
- It is a considerable waste of investment in money and people. Where ongoing 3-5 year research projects are terminated (which themselves are typically 2 years in planning and peer review), the previous millions of pounds spent on investigator time and direct research costs is lost. This represents an immoral waste of tax-payer’s funds and is exceedingly poor value-for-money. Moreover, the cuts remove an important source of training and support for early- and mid-career researchers in the UK, and in the LMIC partner countries, who depend on the short-term contracts embedded in ODA projects.
- Bureaucratic time and money wasted. The legal and administrative fallout of administering the cuts will be far reaching at a time when the sector is coping with adjusting to covid-19 and a shifting student base.
- Ethical and moral implications. Abruptly truncating, or cutting research funding is not consequence free, be they patients enrolled in clinical trials or policy makers awaiting research informed advice. By working to understand communities on the frontline of global challenges we have asked them to share their experience in order to learn and benefit. We are not only breaking that contract of trust but not proceeding as set out will force projects to be in breach of UKRI’s own ethical protocols.
The right and strategic way forward
As these ten points show, we disagree with the short-termist view of research investment, one that has led to an unprecedented decision to shut down and “reprofile” competitively-tendered and peer-reviewed projects. This is an action from which it will be hard to recover. The chairs of both the Commons and Lords select committees on science and technology have voiced their own concerns with these cuts, adding to the clamour from learned societies, such as the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Society of Biology and associations such as the Development Studies Association. It is on this basis that we call for an immediate reversal of this decision, maintaining this opportunity for the UK to sustain its research profile and partnerships to tackle global challenges.
Jenni Barclay, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich.
Kent Buse, Director, Healthier Societies Program, George Institute for Global Health.
Sarah Hawkes, Director, Centre for Gender and Global Health, University College London.
Claire J Horwell, Institute of Hazard, Risk & Resilience, Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, Durham.
Competing interests: none declared.