Kent Buse: Johnson’s government of cuts and contempt

A lack of transparency and communication on UK research funding cuts, displays disregard towards researchers and the widescale impacts of these cuts, says Kent Buse

One month ago, two open letters opposing widescale cuts to international research funding administered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) were sent to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Each letter was signed by thousands of scientists, including members of the government’s own SAGE committee. To date the signatories have not received a response from either minister. Since then, thousands of additional signatories have been added to these letters, from virtually every university in the UK, from their research partners overseas, and from hundreds of organisations and networks from all regions of the world.

The cuts are being made pursuant to the government’s suspension of the legally binding funding target for overseas development assistance. To put the cuts into perspective, they leave a £120m gap between allocations and commitments to grant holders in FY21/22, in contrast to the government’s budget of 37 billion pounds over a two-year period for its much-criticised track and trace system. Nonetheless, these relatively small investments in UKRI have enabled British scientists to engage in a vast range of international research partnerships addressing pressing problems that affect people both in the UK and abroad, finding, reporting and advocating for the use of evidence on everything from the climate crisis to dealing with a global pandemic.

Concerns, frustrations, and dismay about the cuts and their impact over 800 UKRI-supported research projects have also been raised in writing by the chairs of both the Commons and Lords select committees on science and technology, by a number of learned societies, such as such as the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Society of Biology as well as by academic associations, such as the British International Studies Association and the Development Studies Association. Academic advisors to related bodies, such as the Global Challenges Research Fund, have tendered their resignations over the cuts. The University College Union called for an immediate reversal of the unprecedented and enforced cancellation. 

To my knowledge, no support in favour of the cuts has emerged. This is not surprising. A vast array of impacts to both live and planned research have been enumerated and documented by those affected, and placed in the public domain. The real and potential impact of the cuts on our collective abilities and capacities to solve current and future global problems have been outlined. And the likely impacts of the cuts on the UKs’ reputation as a trusted partner and leader in the year it hosts the presidency of COP26 and the G7 have featured across the spectrum of the British press

The cuts represent an egregious waste of public finance given that millions of pounds in unfinished projects won’t yield returns on investment. Such investments go beyond the awards themselves to the months devoted to writing and responding to peer-review comments by researchers, the years of relationship building, as well as to the rounds of reviews by peer experts, and all for nought. The lesson here seems to be that the time researchers spent carrying out due diligence on research partners—and on other risk assessments—ought to have been done on the government instead. 

The lack of consultation on the decision to cut so deep and so quick, including domestically, for example, with the government’s advisory body for ODA-funded Research, or with affected partners overseas, is bad form. It is also quite possibly illegal in terms of custom and practice of contractual and employment obligations. The approach is presumably the stuff of political calculus and expediency. Over a month after the announcement of the cuts, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, speaking to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, is reported to have admitted that the cuts to ODA have fallen disproportionately on research but claimed that “I don’t think our international standing or partnerships have been impaired.”

The lack of a fulsome response from this government to the chorus of disapproval based on a post hoc accounting of the costs imposed represents less of an oversight and more of a failure. It suggests an arrogant leadership that has a general disregard for the demos and for explaining itself to the public, and a specific contempt of expert opinion.  

Sobering and independent accounts of the impacts of these cuts have emerged from academia, civil society, and private sector partners. Universities and more specifically project leads have been left to clean up the mess. 

A government that concerned itself with accountability would respond by publishing the timeline and advice it received and upon which it took what appears to observers as a disproportionate and ill-judged decision. In the absence of which, an inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee would be in order.

It is not too late for the government to use a Johnson’s turn of phrase and “follow the science” on this issue while practising some good governance too. Greater transparency and communication from ministers on the logic and risk mitigation in place to obviate the impacts would both be welcome. Equally welcome would be a policy U-turn. Patience is now wearing thin as critics explore a freedom of information request and a possible judicial review. A mass resignation of UKRI peer-reviewers is being organised. As representatives of the academy, we seek to uphold not only scientific standards but also the standards of public life. As such, we call for accountability—meaning answerability for the decision and remedial action to mitigate the impacts.

Kent Buse, Director, Healthier Societies Program, The George Institute for Global Health, London and Sydney.  

Competing interests: Kent is co-organiser of one of the two signed on letters referred to in the first paragraph of Opinion. The letter is still open for additional signatures. 

Twitter: @kentbuse