Advisers quit over ‘draconian’ cuts to overseas research funding

International advisory panel heads condemn ‘inexcusable’ handling of cuts to research supported by foreign aid

三月 16, 2021
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Two senior advisers to a UK research council have quit in protest at the handling of “draconian and misguided” cuts to overseas research projects, claiming the lack of consultation with research leaders was “inexcusable”.

In a letter to Christopher Smith, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), published on 16 March, Jo Beall, emeritus professor and distinguished research fellow at the London School of Economics, and Alison Phipps, Unesco chair in refugee integration through languages and the arts at the University of Glasgow, say they feel obliged to step down with immediate effect as co-chairs of the council’s strategic advisory board (international) in light of the cuts to research projects funded by the UK’s foreign aid budget.

It follows the announcement by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) that it would be forced to halt funding later this year for most projects supported under schemes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund after reductions in government allocations left it facing a £120 million shortfall. Surviving awards face being reduced or “reprofiled”, and no new grants will be approved.

UKRI’s funding, which was provided by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), was cut after the government abandoned its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas development aid (ODA) because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public finances, reducing it to 0.5 per cent for next year.

An open letter condemning the “unprecedented” decision has been signed by more than 2,200 academics.

In the letter to Professor Smith, who also leads on UKRI’s international work, Professor Beall and Professor Phipps condemn the “unfathomable” lack of consultation with strategic advisers from research councils, adding that it represented an “inexcusable breach of governance”.

It explains how a meeting regarding the likely cuts and their impact on overseas research was “repeatedly rescheduled” – a move that rendered the board’s role “defunct”.

“We can now infer that this was due to the instruction received by UKRI from BEIS that no communication with any stakeholders could be forthcoming from UKRI staff,” it adds.

“We are deeply embarrassed as representatives of the international research and development policy communities in the arts and humanities at the blatant disregard of our relationships with overseas partners,” it continues, adding that “it takes years to build up collaborative research networks and relationships of trust”.

“Stopping research within a funding cycle and without any warning is not only wasteful to UK taxpayers in terms of research insights and impact but constitutes blatant disregard and lack of respect for the professionalism and integrity of our peers internationally,” the letter says.

“As co-chairs this is not something we can condone, not least because it contradicts our obligation to advise on how to ‘build strong and equitable partnerships…with international organisations and Global South researchers’.”

The letter also condemns the “flagrant disregard” shown to principal investigators charged with setting up complex international partnerships as part of the aid-funded projects, and also sympathises with UKRI staff who have been “placed in an impossible position”, saying the cuts may “undo years of exemplary engagement and investment in relationship building, good governance and care”.

“The UK is poorer for its decision to cut ODA, even if the reasons for it may be understandable,” the letter concludes, adding, however, that there is “no excuse…for the draconian and misguided manner of the cut to UKRI ODA funds or for the fact that it has been done without due process and the use of the advisory and governing means at its disposal”.

In a statement, Professor Smith said he was “grateful for the advice, time and input of our advisory groups” and wanted to “especially thank the AHRC strategic advisory group members for their valuable service”.

“We recognise how challenging this situation is, and the impact the sudden reduction in ODA budget will have on all of those involved in ODA supported programmes,” said Professor Smith.

“We will work closely with the research community to try to maximise the benefits from the limited funding we have available, and ensure that we are making the best use of the £125 million funding we have been allocated for next financial year,” he said, adding that UKRI would “endeavour to make these cuts as fair and transparent as possible, drawing on advice and input wherever possible to manage and mitigate the impact of the reductions in funding”.



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