The government is to terminate three international development research funds, moving instead to “a new model of international science collaboration”.
The new approach revealed by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) combines Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding from the overseas aid budget with non-ODA research funding.
The three ODA-financed research funds – the Newton Fund, the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Fund for International Collaboration (FIC) – will end, the department added.
Two recently published independent reviews of Newton and GCRF – released by BEIS on 17 February – endorsed the progress made by both multi-million-pound international development research programmes but warned that their futures were uncertain in the context of reduced aid spending.
The funds – launched in 2016 and 2014, respectively – were affected by the 2020 decision to reduce UK international aid spending, which led to cuts to research budgets of up to £275m from 2021. Since then, the government has not spelt out its intentions for the future of these ODA research funds.
A short BEIS statement, given in response to a University Business enquiry about the recently published reviews, did not detail the timings or elaborate on specifics of the changes but confirmed the end of Newton, GCRF and FIC. The department would, it added, “meet legal commitments to fund existing projects”.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “The department regularly evaluates its research and innovation funds to ensure continuous improvement and value for money.
“The findings of these independent reports will help us to identify and address areas of strength and weakness to deliver more effective research programmes in future.”
The “new model” would “captur[e] the best of existing partnerships” and “align” with government development priorities set out in the International Development Integrated Review, BEIS said. The Integrated Review identified seven priorities for UK aid spending, including supporting open societies and conflict resolution, humanitarian assistance, promoting international trade and education for girls.
It is not clear what non-ODA funds will “combine” with international aid research spending, outlined by the BEIS statement.
The findings of these independent reports will help us to identify and address areas of strength and weakness to deliver more effective research programmes in future
– BEIS spokesperson
After the ODA cuts were announced, Universities UK said the decision would damage universities’ “international standing” and stymie research on “global challenges”. A report compiled by Universities UK International (UUKi) on the benefits of ODA research funding was told by one university that China was seen as more reliable than UK in the aftermath of the cuts.
‘Making clear progress…but progress is uneven’
The government-commissioned reviews of GCRF and Newton concluded that both projects had made good progress towards achieving their stated aims to support research partnerships between the UK and researchers in low- and middle-income countries.
The appraisal of the GCRF is the first part of a multi-instalment review, with this section focused upon its management. The Newton Fund review was the concluding review.
The GCRF is, the report said, “making clear progress in terms of becoming relevant, coherent, well-targeted, fair, gender-sensitive and socially inclusive, but progress is uneven, and important gaps remain”.
But there were shortfalls identified with the performance of the GCRF in its first five years. Reviewers said funding is concentrated in middle-income countries, like India and Brazil, rather than low-income nations. This trend was an “unintended consequence” of current processes, the report suggested, namely an “overreliance on existing networks of UK academics” and “funding based on research excellence” which both advantage countries with more established HE sectors. The reviewers suggested a clear plan for more engagement with new partners, and different assessments for research outcomes, could correct these issues.
The review said the GCRF lacked an overarching strategy and would benefit from improved data collection and analysis, new annual reviews, clear lines of responsibility and “a consistent Challenge Fund identity”.
Funding reductions, it warned, are “likely to pose risks to GCRF’s ability to support the early results… and will limit its impact potential in the next phases”. This warning is perhaps more significant in light of the news that the GCRF will end, potentially putting some of the work of the past five years at risk.
The reviewers found that the Newton Fund showed early signs of delivering value for money and better commitments to gender equality. It found that the Fund is “relevant” to the needs of partner countries and was “achieving its short-term outcomes” and making “progress towards meeting its more ambitious longer-term impact”. Reviewers found that academics and partner countries valued the Newton Fund.
But it said there lacked a sustainable “exit strategy” in many cases for its funded projects, which need follow-on funding from the partner country to help the projects mature and translate “research into impact”.
The Newton Fund, too, requires an overarching strategy if it is to “identify its purpose and the outcomes and impacts expected from across the portfolio”, the reviewers said. The review also noted that the lack of funding certainty from the UK Treasury was a “challenge” to overcome – but reviewers said the fundings were equally applicable to “any future similar Funds”.