In the November 2015 spending review George Osborne announced that the UK would be spending £1.5 billion over the next 5 years on global challenges research though the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). I was initially taken aback at the altruistic nature of the fund which was at odds with the narrative of austerity of the rest of the statement. However, on further investigation it became clear this money was to be used to enable the UK science budget to rise with inflation. The money would come from the 0.7% of government spending which, by law, had to be spend on Official Development Assistance (ODA). By some creative accounting, Osborne had in fact kept the science budget the same (which is a reduction when inflation is accounted for) and got the Department for International Development (DFID) to make up the rest. What this meant was that scientists would now be encouraged to work on global challenges simply because the amount of money available for generic science had been cut and therefore would become even more competitive. Current estimates are that responsive mode funding grants have already been cut by 5%.
The trend of using ODA money to supplement the science budget is unlikely to change, particularly as Priti Patel (International Development Secretary) has said that she wants to see the 0.7% ‘work in the national interest’. DFID have historically spent about 3% of their sizeable budget on research; with the advent of GCRF, this has increased in real terms (due to the Ross Fund which will be targeted at infectious diseases) rather than going down. And over the next 4 years DFID will spend a further £390 million a year on research in addition to the GCRF (fig 1).
Figure 1: Estimated ODA spend on research 2015-2021
However, motivation aside, the GCRF is in general a good thing. The idea is that the fund will galvanise British expertise to tackle global challenges outlined by the Sustainable Development Goals. Research is arguably the most efficient way to spend ODA money as the results are largely sustainable and less affected by corruption compared with more traditional forms of aid. One of the few success stories of development is global health which has made massive progress in the last 30 years in the world’s poorest countries, and at the heart of this, with a few exceptions (e.g. hugely successful low tech interventions such as distribution of mosquito nets), is expensive publicly funded research.
The majority of GCRF will likely be spent by Research Councils UK (RCUK) but there is a desire that the number and scale of involvement of other delivery partners will increase, and RCUK has already presented projected figures about the extent to which this will occur (Fig2). With this comes its own danger. RCUK has some experience of funding projects aimed at international development but are struggling with the large amount of funds it is now having to distribute. Other delivery partners may be less prepared, and the money may be spent inefficiently or even counterproductively if the infrastructure and expertise are not there.
Figure 2: Slide presented by RCUK on spending profile of GCRF
The first year has been marred by a money out the door approach as RCUK and other delivery partners have been forced to spend allocated funds by the end of this financial year; this has led to tight deadlines and less than optimum funding schemes. Hopefully this will change as the funders begin to talk to each other and become more familiar with the challenges associated with GCRF and international-facing projects in general.
When viewed in isolation, GCRF has the potential to be great for the Sustainable Development Goals. However, this should not happen to the detriment of more curiosity-driven generic science. Arguably, the most impactful innovation for Sub-Saharan Africa is the mobile phone which has transformed the economy and allowed a whole continent to leapfrog the use of home computers. However, the scientist working on the early mobile phone would have been ineligible for GCRF funding as the research would, in the short term at least, have primarily affected non-developing countries. The same could be said for solar, which is now starting to revolutionise energy access for the poorest people on earth in rural communities (fig 3).
Figure 3. A solar powered water pump in Sahel used to pump water from underground for irrigation.
It is my belief that for the GCRF to work generic non-GCRF-related funding should not be cut at the level that it will be. In addition, more funding and training should be made available to GCRF delivery partners to make sure that the money is not only spent, but spent in a way which will benefit the target audience of the world’s poorest people. Furthermore, the spending timeline needs to be relaxed. Global crises and their solutions do not necessarily align with spending review periods and financial year ends. To be most effective projects need to be long-term, flexible and reactive, all of which is currently difficult within the outlined framework.
Dr Tristan Eagling currently works as a research manager in Global Development. Prior to this he has worked with Innovate UK and DFID on ODA funding schemes related to agriculture and the Newton Fund. His PhD was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was around the biofortification of wheat for developing countries.
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