UKRI: most aid-funded research grants face axe after budget cut

Funder says it is unlikely to be able to support ‘majority’ of awards beyond July, and will be unable to approve new applications

March 11, 2021
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The UK’s main public research funder has warned that it may have to cancel most of the grants it supported using money from the country’s aid budget, after government cuts left it facing a massive shortfall.

UK Research and Innovation says that, while it would seek to reduce or “reprofile” awards, “it is our current assessment that we would be unable to provide funding for the majority of awards beyond the amount currently agreed up to 31 July 2021”. No new grants will be approved.

The warning was issued after the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding provided to UKRI by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was cut to £125 million for 2021-22, leaving a £120 million gap between allocations and commitments.

The UK has abandoned its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on aid because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public finances, reducing it to 0.5 per cent for next year, although ministers have emphasised that the cut is temporary.

In a letter to institutions, Christopher Smith, UKRI’s international “champion”, says that the cuts will affect grants from every UK funding council, including those supported via the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund.

“It is our current assessment that we would be unable to provide funding for the majority of awards beyond the amount currently agreed up to 31 July 2021,” says Professor Smith, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

While the exact details are yet to be confirmed, the solution “may involve reprofiling and reducing grants, with a view to supporting current longer-term awards to remain active during this challenging year and to continue to operate into future years”, he warns.

“It is also unavoidable that some grants will need to be terminated. The reduction in ODA spend also means that we are unable to initiate any new awards where proposals have been submitted but have not reached the grant award stage,” Professor Smith writes.

UKRI will continue to support existing grants “according to their usual arrangements” for now, “but will not be liable for the cost of new activities entered into after receipt of this letter”, Professor Smith says.

Academics have raised concerns about the impact that the cuts will have on the international reputation of UK research, and have suggested that they raise questions about the government’s ambition to spend £22 billion on research by 2024-25.

In his letter, Professor Smith says that researchers have “worked superbly to establish high quality collaborations across the developing world and to build a powerful portfolio of projects aimed at addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals”.

“Given the situation in which we find ourselves, we want to work with [institutions] to try to reduce as far as possible the impact the sudden reduction to our ODA budget will have on [their] work and on the researchers, partners and communities around the world with whom we have been working so closely over many years,” he adds.

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