The UK government recently announced plans for massive cuts to funding for research carried out under Official Development Assistance (ODA) schemes. The cuts include a reduction of at least £4.3b compared to the 2020 budget and will be applied to both active and future research projects and programmes. Overall, the cuts amount to a dramatic and unprecedented gutting of international research collaboration, with serious consequences for thousands of researchers currently employed by these programmes. More broadly, it is difficult to comprehend the rationale for such cuts amid Brexit-era promises of increased investment in international collaboration and science and research. The cuts directly counter these promises and pose a serious threat to the UK’s position as a global research leader. The research community has reacted with shock and anger. Below, we print some comments from research leaders and researchers affected by the cuts.
“Projects funded under ODA are massively beneficial not only from a research perspective, allowing the UK’s research community to make a real difference in addressing global challenges, but they have also given the UK a strong international platform at a time when scientific diplomacy is of enormous benefit to the UK directly. The loss of international credibility caused to the UK by the sweeping cuts to active UKRI commitments will take decades to recover, and the damage from this deliberate self-harm is even more incomprehensible when much larger research funding allocations are being announced simultaneously for other programs, such as ARIA, which are not yet even fully defined.”
Prof Anna Scaife, University of Manchester & PI Newton Fund STFC
"The ODA cuts represent a betrayal of trust during a time of critical need for investment in global development research. On issues such as sustainability, equality, and COVID-19, ODA researchers are leading important work to prepare societies around the globe for the challenges of our time. We’re working in important research networks that are responsible to communities and governments in every region. To cut our funding at this time is to renege on these commitments and abandon the UK’s place in international efforts to understand urgent global challenges. While my own funding is - at least it seems to this point - unaffected, the cuts put many junior researchers earlier into their contracts into great and undeserved stress. While colleagues under other funding schemes continue their work interrupted, some ODA researchers are unsure if their funding will continue into the next month and are then forced to either look for other funding or work outside the university."
Dr Samuel Heroy, University College London and Researcher GCRF grant PEAK Urban
"As a young researcher in academia, networking with peers for career development is vitally extremely important in order to create a basis for joint future projects such as grant applications. Due to the absence of almost all in-person conferences, meetings and seminars, the options for young researchers to forge these connections was already substantial hindered by the events of COVID throughout 2020. However, there was a bit of hope that even though the opportunities of 2020 are forever gone, that at least part we could catch up on those partly when (some) seminars, meetings and conferences would be allowed to be (partly) held with in-person attendance. With the current budget cuts and the subsequent lack of funding for many academic projects and thus also no funds to pay the salaries of academic researchers, the detrimental effect of the COVID pandemic on the career of young researchers would be two-fold: once by the pandemic itself, and subsequently by the cuts to the vital funding. Hence, the budget cut can be detrimental if not existential to the career of especially young researchers who need to create a public profile within academia (where as established researchers already have created a name for themselves in years previous to pandemic on which they can rely on during the pandemic but also to create some insurance and certainty to continue their work post-pandemic). I myself mostly felt very high levels of stress induced by the uncertainty introduced by the funding cut, and given that life as an academic is already quite stressful and also uncertain as long as one is not tenured faculty, any additional levels of stress and uncertainty significantly reduce the ability to focus on the work at hand, both introduced by the additional stress but also because you are not certain if you should instead be applying for alternative jobs instead to secure your income.
Additionally, in times of anti-colonialism awareness and cultural and social justice awakening across the global community and especially in Great Britain, which is undoubtedly a country with a substantial colonial history, cutting funding to research on developing countries and the challenges they face sets the wrong political signal to the global community. After all, research on issues crucial for developing countries could aid those countries to design better policies for economic and social development in the benefit of their populations, and many academics would argue that a majority of those challenges that developing countries face can be traced back and have their roots in colonialism to begin with. Furthermore, given that these cuts in budgets were announced in conjunction with budget increases to the military defence, the signals set by this budget are overall extremely questionable, in particular as the UK defence budget (relative to GDP) was already above the NATO set guidelines and the highest in Western Europe"
"Project TRANSSITioN has been co-designed with stakeholders (farmers, NGOs, industry players, policy makers) to address challenges of democratising precision agriculture, connecting farmers to the right market, reducing fresh food loss, increasing shelf life. We aimed to solve some of these challenges through the UK Space science and technologies from UKRI STFC, combining these with low cost indigenous Indian technologies and propose new business models, new public private partnerships and policy recommendations to support such interventions in India.
The recent announcement from the UKRI regarding ODA cuts has adversely impacted Project TRANSSITioN – Indian partners are unable to get the funds allocated to them. As this project is being led by two institutions: STFC Labs (RAL Space) focusing on Space Science & Technology and the University of Sheffield focusing on food supply chains, the announcement has affected these two institutions differently, causing reputation damage, trust deficit and spoiling the relationships with the ODA partners, which took years of hard work to build. The STFC RAL Space was responsible for Indian partners’ budget allocation, delivering overall project impact activities and managing the project with a full-time project manager. The sudden announcement of ODA cuts meant that STFC Labs did not even receive a no cost extension (which we were hoping to receive at least until December 2021) unlike Sheffield. These contradictory information from the UKRI in a short notice period meant that one part of the project led by Sheffield could continue until December 2021 but all the work allocated to and dependent on STFC Labs would have to be ended by 31st March 2021. Owing to this RAL Space finance stopped the last milestone payments due to Indian partners while asking them to furnish evidences of expenditure until 31 March 2021 at a very last moment. They were given a very short notice to gather evidences against their expenditure incurred. While the provision of milestone payment (which is uncommon) restricted Indian partners to hire project personnel with long term-commitments, the sudden change in rule where they were asked for the evidence of commitments of long-term expenses left them without funds or resources for the remaining part of the project. Sheffield’s work package which oversees all the WPs deliverables from STFC Labs and Indian Partners for impact delivery has been negatively impacted due to the discrepancies of how UKRI dealt with ODA projects held by STFC Labs and the Universities. We were constantly asking for clarity and extension for STFC Labs since September 2020 and were only told about this in March 2021, leaving us no time to work on Plan B. ODA enquires team are saying that they are not responsible for this, STFC Labs should have looked into this and STFC Labs are putting everything onto ODA enquires team. Neither of the party is actually willing to take ownership of putting us in a difficult situation we are currently facing.
The ODA enquires team writes that 'Our focus is to preserve as much of the benefit as possible from our ODA research and innovation portfolio.' However, I have been constantly asking them to rescue this project from failing as we had already invested 20 months of time, completing almost 60-70% of the work despite such challenging times with the help of ODA country partners. We were even ready to work under a reduced budget for STFC Labs and deliver at least 90% of our work, generating impact from the already completed work. There has been a great interest from different Ministries in India and The Department of International Trade in our project and we were hoping to sign an MoU with them by the end of this year. Taking away already allocated funds at the last moment, with a notice of less than 15 days to STFC Labs and 1 day to Indian partners, has negatively impacted our project outputs and impact (we started co-writing journal articles, building living lab for sustainable cold food chain with 50,000+ small-scale farmers, big industry partners but now everything is paused), relationship, reputation and caused a huge trust deficit in the system. This also meant that we are losing our project manager without giving him any notice period which I believe is absolutely unfair when somebody has been working so hard over the last 18 months. This also means that we are losing the budget for our dissemination activities that Sheffield was going to lead but we had kept the budget in RAL Space because of convenience as Project manager would have arranged all the events. For Indian partners, it meant that they lost their time investment, RA, all hard work that went into collecting data for STFC Labs work packages (as they were unable to travel) along with their WPs and the hope that they would be able to co-produce impactful research with us.
ODA Ethics guidelines suggest that we treat ODA participants as 'equitable partners.' However, our ODA partners complained that the way they were treated (due to the requirement of the UKRI financial system) was more like a supplier or service provider to UKRI rather than as partners on research project that was co-designed with them.
The cuts are understandable in case where the project is yet to start or is in a very early stage/ inception phase but cutting down budget for the projects which have already made substantial progress and will be able to deliver the impact in this year itself is a waste of money and every one’s time, severely impacting the long-build relationships, reputation and trust – as the ODA partners worked on the project for almost one year without funds due to delay in fund transfer from STFC. While the partners worked hard without funds purely based on the mutual trust, the UKRI/STFC/RAL Space completely failed them by forfeiting the last milestone payment citing various reasons that have no meaning to them.
We really needed STFC and UKRI ODA team to back up the Project TRANSSITioN (led by RAL Space) as every partner in this project from the UK and India are keen to work and deliver, even under a reduced budget and under such difficult challenging times. We know how much positive impact this project would have generated in building UK-India trade relationship related to fresh produce but now everything seems uncertain."
Dr. Sonal Choudhary, Sheffield University Management School, The University of Sheffield