By Tolib Mirzoev, Professor of Global Health Policy and Systems at the University of Leeds and elected member of the Board of Directors of the Health Systems Global. His research on global health received funding from the UK government through UKRI and other sources.
On 11 March 2021, a major body responsible for a large portion of the United Kingdom’s international research budget, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), wrote to all UK higher education institutions, institutes and businesses, to share the UK Government’s decision to reduce its funding for Official Development Assistance (ODA) allocated through the UKRI.
The reduction is significant: a £120m gap between allocations and commitments across all UKRI Councils for the current financial year. As a consequence, on Monday 15 March, multiple research networks received notifications that forthcoming calls for research proposals on global challenges will be cancelled, and that even some of the on-going research will be affected.
It is an unprecedented decision, which reflects a major impact on national economies following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UK Government’s plans to cut its ODA commitments have been trailed and debated for several months, with substantial negative reaction on social media and with multiple groups and institutions joining together and mobilising around calls for the decision to reversed, including recent efforts by colleagues to collate thousands of signatures in support of open letters to the UK Government.
As a UK-based researcher working in global health, I am also concerned and dismayed about this decision. Many in-depth analyses on the magnitude of the impact of this decision will undoubtedly be shared in the coming days, weeks and months. Three reflections on this decision are crossing my mind in the immediate aftermath of the news from UKRI.
First, as we are continuously learning from the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, major societal problems are not confined to the national borders. Of course, desperate times call for desperate measures, but it is important to remember that we are all in this together and de-prioritising global development sounds like a bad choice within our inter-connected world.
Second, there may be an implicit assumption that research on societal challenges is not essential for economic recovery. We are not going to “build back better” without strong evidence on how equitable, fairer and just societies can be established and maintained within and beyond the UK borders. Defunding research on global challenges will not help save the UK economy, but will do the opposite.
Last, but not least, decreased funding means less opportunity for establishing cross-disciplinary international partnerships, limited exchange and reduced mutual learning. As a consequence, it will be more challenging to maintain the UK’s role as a global leader in research and development, something which will certainly constrain re-establishment of the UK as a global power following the recent withdrawal from the European Union.
Responses to major global challenges require international collaborations. This is a crucial time for governments to bolster their support for global science and research partnerships. Significant reductions in support for international research will only undermine partnerships and progress, and damage our collective efforts to improve people’s lives around the world.
Image: Toby Phillips Photography