UK science reputation at risk as cuts raise strategy questions

Cuts to major international research funds will harm UK’s reputation but also undermine rationale for UK’s main funding body, claim research leaders

March 16, 2021
The barren land is taken over by the Sahara desert in Chad, where farmers and herders are pitted against each other over diminishing pasture and resources. As an illustration of how UK cuts to research aid will harm it's reputation
Source: Getty

Massive cuts to projects supported by the UK’s foreign aid budget risk devastating damage to the country’s scientific reputation and raise questions about the direction of its research policy, sector leaders said.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) said 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.

An open letter condemning the “unprecedented” decision has been signed by more than 650 academics.

Sue Hartley, vice-president for research at the University of Sheffield, whose own GCRF project is bringing clean solar energy to rural communities in Africa, said the cancellation of overseas work would be a blow to the UK’s reputation as “the trusted partner of choice for many NGOs and [overseas] universities”.

“We have made commitments to our partners, which may now not be honoured,” Professor Hartley told Times Higher Education, adding that “some overseas partners have contributed their own resources to these projects…but why would anyone want to risk working with us again?”

“Just as they are delivering the most impact on the ground and making a real difference to some of the world’s poorest communities, overseas research programmes will now have their funding stopped,” she said.

The GCRF had also “stimulated new ways of working in UK universities which have been beneficial to interdisciplinary thinking in research” and had “exemplified the multi-disciplinary, policy-focused and societally engaged ways of working that many see as central to UKRI’s mission”, Professor Hartley said.

“It would be very damaging if these cuts deter universities from engaging with large cross-disciplinary and cross-council programmes,” she said.

John Womersley, former chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said the cuts also raised questions about the rationale for UKRI, an umbrella body that brought together nine funding organisations when it was founded in 2018.

“When UKRI was created, the above-the-water reason was to promote interdisciplinarity but, below the water, there was an understanding that the Treasury would put a lot more money into science, but it didn’t trust the sector to spend it, so a new framework was required,” he said.

“If these new funds are not going to persist, what value does this agency, which is a lot more bureaucratic and bigger than many expected, bring to science?”

UKRI’s funding 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.

University leaders would be dismayed by the scaling back of the GCRF given the repeated assurances that research funding would steadily increase in coming years, Professor Womersley said.

“While ODA funding was being used for research, it was assumed it was research money and wouldn’t instantly disappear when ODA budgets were cut,” he said. “If these commitments get scrapped so quickly, the forthcoming increases in research funding are maybe not as solid as we thought.”

Jude Fransman, co-convenor of the Rethinking Research Collaborative, an independent evaluator of the GCRF, said the cuts had “highlighted the dangerous power of massive funds like the GCRF to completely reorient the sector, creating new strategic directions, structures, processes, networks and even institutions, which are then completely devastated when funds are suddenly pulled”.

The cuts were “part of a broader funding shift” exemplified by plans for the new £800 million Advanced Research and Invention Agency, she added.

“Mission-led research is being replaced by ‘high-risk, high-reward science’, while participation of researchers and other stakeholders from outside of the UK in agenda-setting and decision-making is being limited by the emphasis on home-grown ‘visionary’ British scientists,” Dr Fransman warned.


Print headline: UK science reputation and strategy in jeopardy after aid funding cuts

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Reader's comments (2)

We haven't learnt from the ancient Greeks and their aeolipile. This was a steam 'engine', a container of water with a sideways angled spout, that when heated from below spun around. A nice toy for the nobility. So they had a steam powered engine/wheel. Did they have the Industrrial Revolution, canals, railways, pumps, mines, engines, factories.....? No the aeolipile remained a toy, because they had slaves to do all the work. They had labour so cheap they had no need of capital, nor any R&D to develop new machines. Today we are also cutting costs, cutting labour costs, reducing R&D......we have an economy where it is (deemed) to costly and unfruitful to develop new research, and labour is cheap and expendable and replaceable. Like the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Soon we'll see the dust cloud of the Gothic and Hunnic cavalry appearing oin the horizon, the cheap labour will defect (they have nothing to lose) and we'll wonder why we have no technology to counter the threat.
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