‘Unprecedented’ UK aid cuts have ‘enormous’ impact on researchers

Research council head calls for ‘long-term vision’ to end cross-border funding ‘volatility’

April 28, 2021
Source: UKRI

The UK must quickly set out a long-term plan for how its researchers will form international collaborations to avoid a repeat of “unprecedented” funding cuts, according to the research council head who has presided over the scrapping of dozens of overseas projects.

Christopher Smith, executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, who, as UK Research and Innovation’s international champion has overseen the recent cuts to research supported by foreign aid, said it was vital to introduce a “more stable…mechanism for international cooperation” to give confidence to overseas researchers that partnerships developed over years would continue.

“We are in extraordinary times and there is no desire that this level of volatility should continue,” Professor Smith told a Westminster Higher Education Forum event on 28 April.

Professor Smith, who was previously a historian at the University of St Andrews, told the event that UKRI was expecting to receive about £500 million from the UK’s foreign aid budget in 2021-22 until it was told about drastic reductions following the decision to abandon the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product on overseas aid.

“Our expectation was to be spending about £500 million – this year we have a budget of £125 million and that has left a gap of £120 million,” explained Professor Smith, who said that the “very, very difficult financial climate has impacted enormously [on researchers]”.

The unexpected axing of projects due to this last-minute reduction in budget was “unprecedented”, he continued.

“We have never done this at UKRI or at the research councils that existed before,” said Professor Smith, who said he was “anxious to monitor the impact of the cuts” while assessing the benefits of those projects that had survived.

“It is my commitment as UKRI’s international champion that we build back quickly those strategic partnerships that have been so successful,” Professor Smith continued, saying that UKRI was currently preparing its strategy about how international collaboration would occur in the future.

But he also called on the government to give more clarity to the research community about how its staff might work across borders in future, saying: “We need a long-term vision for international funding.”


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