Communication ‘shambles’ over aid cuts ‘damages trust’ in UKRI

Senior leaders question why research funder has not tried harder to save at-risk projects

May 25, 2021
Person walking past a wall with an number of little traffic lights of red and green man in the centre of each as a metaphor for confused communication
Source: Getty

Confused communication over massive cuts to research projects supported by the foreign aid budget has eroded trust in the UK’s main funding body, senior academics have warned.

While anger over the sudden cancellation of dozens of projects funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund has centred on the ministerial decision to slash almost £400 million from aid-related research budgets, the handling of these cuts in recent weeks has also left many senior researchers frustrated and uncertain about which initiatives might survive or not.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) was due to inform universities about the extent of their budget reductions by the end of April, but several institutions told Times Higher Education that mistakes in documents meant that they did not yet know their final settlements. On 20 May, a UKRI update indicated that university-level GCRF cuts would be finalised by the end of May, while Newton Fund decisions would be made by mid-June.

“It’s been an absolute shambles,” said Alison Phipps, co-director of the GCRF-funded South-South Migration Hub, who is based at the University of Glasgow.

“They send us emails then retract them, [send us] templates, then require us to redo them, then ask if we want more money, then less – we have absolutely no picture [of likely cuts] whatsoever, not even a ballpark figure.”

Sue Hartley, pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sheffield, said confirmation letters were “full of errors, so UKRI had to go back to the drawing board”, suggesting that the episode raised questions about “UKRI’s capacity and capability to deal with crises like this”.

Sheffield is set to lose about £1.2 million in research funding, but Newcastle University is likely to lose £5.8 million, according to local MP Chi Onwurah, Labour’s shadow science minister.

The cuts, which left a £120 million shortfall for funded projects, follow the Westminster government’s decision to drop its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product on overseas aid.

But senior scientists told THE that they were surprised that UKRI had failed to negotiate for extra funds from the Treasury or had not negotiated the use of other parts of its £8 billion budget to cover this year’s deficit.

“To cashflow £120 million shouldn’t have been too difficult,” said one research leader, who added that it belied a lack of support for the GCRF within UKRI, which, because it was spread across different research councils, was “in an incredibly weak position”.

John Womersley, a former chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said UKRI was legally prevented from propping up the scheme with other funds, but “emergency flexibility could have been requested”.

“I strongly suspect that there may have been a stand-off for a while between UKRI and the Treasury, with UKRI saying that if the budgets were cut then they would have no choice but to react this way – in the hope that a last-minute solution could be found in the shape of extra money,” said Professor Womersley.

“But a better outcome could surely have been found because this has been a PR disaster for both government and UKRI for relatively modest savings.”

In its latest statement, UKRI said that it had “been clear that we needed to make some very difficult decisions – including issuing grant termination notices”, and its “aim therefore was to work with the research and innovation community to mitigate the impact of these cuts”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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