On March 11, a letter from UK Research and Innovation, which oversees Britain’s nine research councils, announced that as a cash-strapped British government was cutting its foreign aid spending, UKRI in turn would reduce its spending on research supported by the Official Development Assistance program.
While the portion the UKRI oversees of the more than £10 billion the UK annually spends on foreign assistance is small, the cuts in percentage terms were large. The letter states that the allocation to UKRI had fallen to £125 million, leaving a £120 million gap between allocations and commitments. While the latter notes that “it is too early to detail the final impact of this review on individual grants funded by the Global Challenge Research Fund (GCRF), Newton Fund and other ODA funds within our councils including Innovate UK,” the halving tells its own powerful story. As the letter details:
Our aim now is to work closely with you try to maximise the benefits from the limited funding we have available, and ensure that we are making the best use of the £125m funding we have available next year. This 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. 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.
“There is no systematic, logical or fair way that cuts of this magnitude and pace can be implemented, with arbitrary decisions inevitable,” argues a statement opposing the cuts released by the Development Studies Association. “UK research institutions will not be able to fulfil agreements with overseas partners who are relying on receiving the full value of agreed allocations, many of which have already been written into contracts. Relationships of trust built up over many years between UK researchers and institutions in the Global South will be damaged and the capacity of UK universities to recruit global talent severely diminished. The decision sends a message that the UK government only values ‘equitable partnerships’ in the good times. The reputational damage to the UK Government and to UK researchers and research institutions will be considerable.”
Given all this, Britain’s Academy of Social Sciences released the following plea to restore key pieces of the ODA budget to UKRI.
The Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS) strongly urges the UK government to reinstate funding for UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), the Newton Fund and university QR funding for GCRF, to meet its existing commitments. It is vitally important to the UK itself that research and other activities already contractually agreed with underpinning funding from Official Development Assistance (ODA) continue, even before we consider their importance for the wider world.
We believe these cuts undermine the Government objective to seek a new role in global leadership and influence and new international economic partnerships. There is a high risk of loss of international trust and damage to bilateral relations resulting from the cancellation of this funding for agreed projects. Our reputation both as a leader of international science and as a reliable trading partner will suffer, and the losses will greatly outweigh the £180m of UKRI funding cancelled. While cancellation of future projects says something about the UK’s priorities, cancellation of existing commitments says something even more profound about our international trustworthiness.
With national and regional governments, the World Bank, various UN Committees, and wider civil societies in the partner countries all involved in various GCRF project partnerships, as well as leading universities across the world, the impact on our reputation will be both extensive and profound. For the UK to be the partner that reneges on its existing funding commitments, when it has required international partner organisations to commit to significant set up costs and partial project funding in many cases, will be shocking to many.
The ‘Newton Fund’ and other schemes supported by the ODA funds bring hundreds of the research leaders of tomorrow from lower and middle income countries (LMICs) to the UK, at all levels of research and in all disciplines. These placements, also already agreed, are now at risk too. All those concerned about the UK’s ‘soft power’ around the world should be deeply worried about this.
The GCRF projects also matter to the ‘real world’. They address matters of global importance and many of the existing grants at risk of cancellation are notable because they bring STEM and the social sciences together to tackle issues linked to new technologies, climate change, sustainability and resilience. For example, such GCRF projects potentially at risk include: stemming wildfires in Indonesia with their impact on local health and global carbon emissions; managing climate change in river deltas where half a billion people currently live; sustainable use of the ocean eco-system on which fishing communities around the world depend; and poultry production in south and southeast Asia, with its profound effects on world health.
Other GCRF projects tackle societal issues of benefit both to (LMICs) and to the UK itself. For example, GCRF projects potentially at risk include: research and evidence on security threats; links between trade, development, and biodiversity; water security and sustainable development; preparedness for humanitarian crises and epidemics; interventions to support African adolescents; and better understanding and management of south-south migration.
For the UK and the international partners involved, the funding cancellation will affect thousands of jobs and thousands of careers – many of them early career scholars who are the life blood of the next generation of researchers, leaders and innovators. At a time when UK universities’ international student intakes are responsible for most of the £21 billion the UK gains in education-related exports, and when overseas students are actively being sought to replace declining numbers of EU students, the effect on the UK’s global reputation in higher education is arguably another own-goal, both in narrow economic terms, and in longer-term reputational damage.
Finally, the cancellation of funding raises a question of trust within the UK. How can UK higher education institutions engage in future in good faith with government’s medium and long-term strategies, some involving financial commitment and risks, when government has now decided that it can withdraw funding that has already been granted? This is a deeply disturbing precedent.
The Academy of Social Sciences therefore urges all the government departments involved – primarily the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Treasury, and BEIS – to reinstate ODA funding support for grant decisions already made. We believe they should also consider the issue of future ODA-subsidised funding. But avoiding immediate global reputational and real economic damage to the UK should be even more of a pressing concern to UK policy-makers.
Professor Roger Goodman FAcSS, President, Academy of Social Sciences
Dr Rita Gardner CBE FAcSS, Chief Executive, Academy of Social Sciences
and the following member learned societies:
Association of Law Teachers
Association for Psychosocial Studies
Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth
British Accounting and Finance Association
British Association for Applied Linguistics
British Association for International and Comparative Education
British Academy of Management
British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies
British Educational Research Association
British International Studies Association
British Sociological Association
British Society of Criminology
British Society of Gerontology
British Society for Population Studies
British Universities Industrial Relations Association
Development Studies Association
Political Studies Association
Royal Anthropological Institute
Regional Studies Association
Royal Geographical Society with IBG
Royal Statistical Society
Royal Town Planning Institute
Socio-Legal Studies Association
Social Policy Association