openDemocracyUK: News

United Nations hits out at UK government global research cut

Exclusive: ‘Incredibly short-sighted’ budget cuts draw international disapproval and threaten global health research

Peter Geoghegan
Adam Bychawski Peter Geoghegan
12 March 2021, 4.21pm
A trainee biomedical scientist analyses a COVID-19 test. Early career researchers said they were "devastated" by news of the cuts.
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Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

The United Nations has criticised the UK government for cutting funding for research that supports some of the poorest countries in the world.

British scientists were left “devastated” after being told on Thursday 11 March that £120m for UK universities’ global research will be pulled with just four months' notice. Projects set for cuts include research into combating diseases similar to COVID-19 and Ebola, potentially leaving the world less prepared for future pandemics. 

The UN said the cuts "bode ill for developing countries – and particularly least developed countries".

Countries such as Yemen and Sudan “need research and knowledge-sharing to help close the digital divide, strengthen their capacity to respond to risks in an increasingly complex world,” the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs told openDemocracy. 

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Sarah Champion, Labour MP and chair of the international development select committee, said that the UN’s comments “show the level of concern internationally about the government’s cuts to development aid”.

“To cut research money like this, with almost no notice, is to cut the future development of this country, which seems incredibly short-sighted,” Champion added.   

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the body that oversees all publicly funded research and development grants in England, will receive only £125m this financial year, less than a third of what it was awarded the previous.

The government has said that it is cutting international aid by £4bn in response to the economic impact of the pandemic. Last week, openDemocracy revealed that senior civil servants are considering cuts as high as 90% to some conflict zones.

The Russell Group, which represents top British universities including Oxford and Cambridge, warned that the sudden end to global research commitments could harm the UK's international standing. 

“The cuts will curtail successful programmes that have been a key vehicle for UK science diplomacy over many years, bolstering the UK’s place as a world leader in development and research,” Stephanie Smith, who heads research policy at the Russell Group, told openDemocracy. 

In a letter to colleagues on Thursday, Christopher Smith, who is responsible for coordinating international research funding at the UKRI, said it was “unavoidable that some grants will be terminated”.

He added that the majority of projects funded by UKRI are currently expected to lose funding after August, regardless of what stage their research is at. 

British scientists funded by the grants said they were "devastated" and left "sleepless" by the announcement.

"My colleagues and I have been very shocked by this announcement,” an early career researcher, who did not want to be named, told openDemocracy. “Grant termination implies curtailing research projects that are in progress and that have already had a lot of staff time invested in winning the grants, working on the research itself, not to mention the international partner relationships that have been built.

Dr Caroline Clason, an Associate Professor at the University of Plymouth, told openDemocracy that the cuts, “leave me feeling uncertain about whether I can trust the government to honour future funding commitments.” 

Scientists said that the cuts would affect the development of interventions to reduce the impact of diseases similar to COVID-19, and antimicrobial resistance.

“The pandemic has really brought home the threat of infectious disease, which is a global threat: we need international partnerships to deal with it. Global Challenges Research Fund projects are making a real difference in lots of areas, including infectious disease, with a range of international partners,” Adrian Mulholland, a professor of chemistry at the University of Bristol, told openDemocracy. 

More than a billion pounds from the UK's foreign aid budget has been allocated to the Global Challenges Research Fund since 2016. The government said that the aim of the fund is “to ensure UK science takes the lead in addressing the problems faced by developing countries, whilst developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research”.

The fund is also intended as the UK's contribution towards the UN's goals for sustainable development, which the government previously said is of "critical importance for humanity and the planet", and eradicating poverty in all its forms.

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokesperson 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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