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UK academics unite to urge Dominic Raab to reverse ‘unprecedented’ aid cut

Exclusive: Thousands of academics have signed an open letter calling on the UK government to reverse decision to slash global research budgets

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
17 March 2021, 5.30pm
The open letter to foreign secretary Dominic Raab warns 'it will be hard to recover' from the cuts
Mark Thomas/Alamy Live News

More than 2,500 academics from dozens of leading British universities and research institutes have signed an open letter urging the government to reverse controversial plans to pull £120m in funding for research in some of the poorest parts of the world.

The letter, which comes just a day after the integrated review promised to deliver ‘Global Britain’, warns that planned cuts in Britain’s overseas development assistance budget threaten “the sustainability and credibility of UK research leadership”.

Academics behind the open letter told openDemocracy that the proposed cuts will have a drastic impact on global research work, including that on pandemics, and will have serious repercussions for climate change research ahead of this year’s COP26 in Glasgow.

“This is not ivory tower research, this is research that is embedded in communities, working with partners around the world, as well as businesses in the UK,” said University of East Anglia professor, Jenni Barclay, who instigated the open letter.

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Barclay, who works in disaster risk reduction around volcanoes in South America and the Caribbean, said the government, should “think again” and “recognise the alignment that research of this nature has with their own stated goals with their own integrated review, where the emphasis is on global leadership and partnership working together for a green future."

This is research that is embedded in communities, working with partners around the world, as well as businesses in the UK

Barclay started the open letter after UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which oversees the government’s research funding, last week wrote to universities warning that the budget for international development projects will be less than a third of last year’s total.

The cuts were criticised by the United Nations, which told openDemocracy that they “bode ill for developing countries – and particularly least developed countries.”

Researchers have yet to be told which projects will be cut by the end of July, according to Caroline Clason, leader of the centre for research in environment and society at Plymouth University. She fears for the future of a project on water security in the Andes, in Peru, which began in January 2019.

“If it was to be terminated now we would essentially finish the project with no outputs for us or for our project partners in Peru,” Clason, who described the cuts as a “complete shock”, told open Democracy.

“That has an impact not just on us in the UK but also on the people in Peru who have entered into a research relationship with us and trust that we will see that through.

“It is particularly disappointing ahead of COP26 that the government has taken this decision to reduce funding for projects that feed directly into the climate agenda and that they could be curtailed,” Clason added.

It is particularly disappointing ahead of COP26 that the government is reducing funding for projects that feed directly into the climate agenda

The open letter – due to be sent to foreign secretary Dominic Raab and chancellor Rishi Sunak on Thursday 18 March – warns the cuts are “an action from which it will be hard to recover. We call for an immediate reversal of this decision, maintaining this opportunity for the UK to sustain its profile in leading research to tackle global challenges.”

The deep cuts to universities’ global research budgets could have serious repercussions for academics in Britain, especially precarious early career researchers.

The letter warns that there is a “generation of new global researchers and practitioners who are facing the prospect of the abrupt termination of contracts, and cessation of research, before they are able to produce the outputs essential to the development of their careers, jeopardising jobs both in the UK and abroad, at a time of national and international crisis.”

The cuts to global research are part of wider cuts to Britain’s overseas aid budget.

The government has said that it is cutting international aid by £4bn in response to the economic impact of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, openDemocracy revealed that senior civil servants are considering cuts as high as 90% to some conflict zones.

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson previously said, “The UK remains a world-leading aid donor. We will spend more than £10bn this year to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight COVID and improve global health. We are working with our delivery partners, including UKRI, to implement the new settlement for 2021/22 and protect the most effective research programmes."

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