Research for development — can UK-based funders keep up?

Research for development — can UK-based funders keep up?
21 February, 2024

Marie Staunton CBE, Former Chair for the Strategic Coherence of ODA-funded Research (SCOR) Board

The past three years have been turbulent times for research for development.  In the weeks before I became Chair of the Strategic Coherence of ODA-Funded Research (SCOR) Board, my predecessor Peter Piot was on the Today Programme, warning about the damage done by budget cuts. One leader of a Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) research hub resigned rather than let down her Southern research partners. Excellent and engaged research seemed under threat.

Since then, there have been three changes of government and two changes of government machinery. Fast forward to 2024, and we’re facing an imminent election. Global challenges are increasingly complex, progress against the Sustainable Development Goals is slow and, in some areas, in reverse.

As home to six of the top seven universities for development studies, the UK still has a strong research reputation. But other countries like China are moving strategically into cited research and the UK’s development standing should not be taken for granted. Funders must not be distracted from implementing the foundations of grant giving for excellent and engaged research. In turbulent times, how should research funders hold onto excellent research, keep up with global challenges, and respond to demands for equity with partners in the Global South?

In the past three years, I have seen many examples of development research producing life-changing innovation – from vaccine technology developed for MERS and Ebola being repurposed to fight  COVID-19  to multidisciplinary research in the Dominican Republic shedding light on why people settle in the path of storms and floods and how lives and livelihoods can be saved. I have read hundreds of pages and listened to hours of speeches on what works in producing such innovation. I have engaged with best practice guidance and analyses produced by the UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR). From all this, I’ve learnt that good practice boils down to embedding six principles in what funders do.

This is a key lesson from UKCDR’s synthesis of evaluations of two large Official Development Assistance (ODA) research funds — the Newton Fund of £735 million and the Global Challenges Research Fund of £1.5 billion.

Research conducted with local academics and communities who understand the context results in research with impact on the ground, not just on UK researchers’ CVs. There is growing understanding and support for equitable partnerships within academia, as evidenced by the new African Charter for Transformative Research Collaboration.

UKCDR has analysed over 800 impact case studies from the latest Research Excellence Framework, REF2021. One of many examples from that study led to an innovative waste management system in India linking private companies with waste pickers’ associations that resulted in local and national legislative changes. Crucial to success was a long-term transdisciplinary approach for systemic change: the University of Sussex had a 20-year relationship with an environmental NGO Toxic Links and ten years’ experience of work with waste pickers’ associations.   

Innovations in areas as diverse as bovine TB and child disability that work in low-resource settings can be adapted cost effectively in the UK. Forthcoming UKCDR research highlights many examples of this ripple effect, including a teaching app that helped 225,000 children in Malawi make literacy and numeracy gains and has since been rolled out to 126 UK schools.

The UK supports Science Granting Councils, the key vehicles to channel the increasing funding from national governments to science, technology and innovation in sub–Saharan Africa. The African Research Universities Alliance is pushing African Union governments to spend 1% of GDP on research and development, from the present level of 0.42%.

Funders must understand what research is finding in each country and work with local governments to apply these findings. UKCDR‘s MODARI database tracks UK-funded research and has been used for a joint Kenya-UK conference on urban housing that brought together researchers on everything from finance to turning plastic into pavements.

“Over the next three years, the SCOR Board will need all UKCDR’s extensive expertise to tell the story of research for development.”

The UK government’s recent white paper on international development rightly concludes that the polycrisis requires more investment in science, innovation and research. The UK is still reaping the benefits of its sound investment in development research over the years. But I have seen firsthand the ease with which governments, not just in the UK but across OECD countries, were able to cut aid when the fiscal environment deteriorated. Funders extract gigabytes of reports from researchers every month. They are uniquely placed to engage the public and policy makers on the transformative power of development research, as long as this investment is not first on the chopping block when the next government needs to make cuts.

Over the next three years, the SCOR Board will need all of UKCDR’s extensive expertise to tell the story of research for development. The SCOR Board and UKCDR must generate evidence on what works and how best to invest in research. They must also capitalise on the increasing number of players in development funding by fostering dialogue and mutual learning. And finally, they must speak with a collective voice that puts research firmly at the heart of international development.

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