Overseas aid research cuts raise doubts over £22 billion target

Hefty cuts to the fund supporting two flagship international research schemes do not square with UK’s science spending ambitions, warn leaders

February 12, 2021
African worker in PPE inspects supplies
Source: Getty

Massive cuts to UK research funds dedicated to helping poorer parts of the world have raised fresh concerns about the country’s commitment to increase its overall research spending to £22 billion a year.

As part of a reduction of about £4.5 billion to the UK’s overseas aid budget announced by foreign secretary Dominic Raab last month, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) received a 2021-22 allocation of £706 million for international research and development and international climate finance, which supports low-carbon energy use, down from the £951 million spent in 2019.

Those cuts – estimated at almost £250 million, because 2020-21 allocations are not yet known – are likely to substantially affect the £500 million-a-year Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which underwrites UK universities’ research and innovation in the developing world, as well as the £150 million Newton Fund, which supports science partnerships that promote economic development in low-income countries.

With the government set to double its spending on international climate finance from 2021, there are also concerns that overseas research could be squeezed further under the reduced allocation.

Tim Softley, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham, said he was “extremely concerned” that the cuts would “damage our reputation internationally if research programmes cannot go ahead or are delayed, as well as damage our ability to contribute to global recovery from the pandemic”.

“Unless there is a change…it seems very likely that the specific allocation to the GCRF will be substantially reduced, which may make it difficult for UK Research and Innovation to fully meet existing commitments [to ongoing projects],” added Professor Softley, who said universities would see it as a “cut to funding of the core business of UK universities”.

The loss of overseas research funds would represent a blow to many UK universities that had invested time and money to establish links with universities in low- to middle-income countries that were now starting to bear fruit, Professor Softley said.

“A cut in this funding would be a major threat to the sustainability of those activities,” he warned.

The forthcoming research cuts would also raise questions about the government’s ambition to spend £22 billion on research by 2024-25, roughly double the current level of spending, despite recent uplifts in some research budgets, added Professor Softley.

“This seems to be a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other,” he said, adding that GCRF support had become a “critical component of our research base”.

Gary Forster, chief executive of the global aid transparency group Publish What You Fund, also criticised the research cuts, which followed the government’s decision to reduce its overseas aid spending target from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product.

“It is widely understood that when it comes to Covid, this country won’t be safe until all countries are safe; and if anything, the value of research in securing our collective safety is better understood now than it has been,” he said.

“It is vital that there is transparency around the rationale for why certain programmes are being cut and how the prioritisation will affect those most in need,” added Mr Forster, who criticised the “opaque” way in which cuts have been made.

A BEIS spokesman said overseas aid funding settlements were necessary because of the severe and uncertain economic situation resulting from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, the government remained committed, via international aid spending, to “helping some of the world’s poorest and improving millions of people’s lives”, he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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