What did ODA ever do for us? Strategic shifts behind the devastating cuts to ODA-funded research in the UK

By Jude Fransman

The £120 million shortfall suddenly facing UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding schemes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, while undoubtedly devastating, is a relatively small causality against the predicted impact of the reduction of the UK’s aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI on humanitarian and international development programmes around the world. Cuts are expected of over 58% to countries like Yemen, South Sudan and Nigeria, which top the UK government’s famine watchlist, while others such as those in the Sahel, will see their budgets slashed by 93%. Though allegedly responding to the financial impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, these cuts were made alongside an allocation of an additional £16.5 billion for defence spending (an increase to 2.2% of GNI over the next four years). This week, the cap on the number of Trident nuclear warheads that the UK can stockpile was lifted by more than 40%, ending 30 years of gradual disarmament.

Against this marked strategic shift from Oversees Development Assistance (ODA) to ‘defence’ and ‘trade’, characterised by the merger of the Department of International Development (DFID) with the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and its aptly titled integrated review: Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the UK’s research sector is undergoing its own strategic change of direction. While the £1.5 billion GCRF scheme has had a profound effect on reorienting the sector to mission-based and challenge-led research for development, initiatives framed through the UK’s industrial strategy and most recently, the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) are focusing instead on ‘high risk, high reward’ science and technological innovation. Though the initial £800 million investment is relatively small and the relationship between ARIA and UKRI remains to be determined, there are signs of a number of significant shifts.

  • From external scrutiny to carte blanche 

It should be stressed that the ‘equitable collaborations’ currently under threat were by no means the founding raison d’être of the GCRF. The fund’s strategy evolved over time and often in response to critique from official bodies charged with scrutinising the use of ODA funds. Reviews by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) were often damning. However, the fund took the criticism on board and adapted in response. In contrast, the enormous powers being granted to individual leaders involved in the establishment of ARIA has fuelled speculation that the agency will be exempt from ‘freedom-of-information’ rules, and free from standard checks on government spending under the rubric of ‘quick and flexible’ funding as a legacy of Dominic Cumming’s war against bureaucracy. As well as posing a major threat to transparency and accountability, this shift also undermines the learning culture of a fund prepared to listen and adapt.

  • From equity to innovation

The conditions of ODA also forced new attention to ‘fairness and equity’ across UKRI. As well as supporting the development of new guidelines around partnershipsethics and safeguarding, in recent years there has been increasing attention to the decolonisation of research, with some unprecedented examples of GCRF project leadership by academics from ODA-eligible countries. There has also been more recent attention to environmental as well as social justice with implications for monitoring the environmental footprint of research as a type of ‘grimpact’. Such principles sit in tension with the logic of innovation, which privileges rapid experimentation over slow and sustained engagement with contexts and development of trust-based relationships. While the former might support engagement with industry it excludes the participation of smaller civil society organisations who can’t afford the insecurity of ‘failing fast’.

  • From collaboration to team science

Interdisciplinarity is prized by both global challenge and innovation-oriented research. However, there is a distinct difference between the type of collaboration across research councils, professional sectors and national borders deemed essential by ODA-funding, and the American discourse of Team Science that is steadily gaining traction in the UK. Over time, the GCRF has matured from supporting collaboration in small project-based partnerships and encouraging institutional agreements to promoting more complex, multistakeholder collaboration through interdisciplinary hubs. Recognising the systemic nature of collaboration, agenda-setting committees and peer-review colleges have been opened up to academics from ODA-eligible countries and non-academic develop practitioners and partnerships have also been formed at the level of the funder, for example with the African Academy of Sciences. In contrast, the ‘team science’ vision of collaboration tends to be rooted in more autonomous units led by homegrown ‘visionary’ scientists. This has implications for conflicting approaches to researcher development and capacity building. While the more individualised model of expertise lends itself to the nurturing and/or exploitation of ‘talent’, ODA-funded research calls for recognition of distributed expertise across and promotion of distributed leadership across institutions, sectors and countries. This suggests the need for capacity strengthening initiatives at the level of research systems (such as those national systems identified by the Global Development Network’s Doing Research initiative as well as through trans-national systems such as those being natured by the African Academy of Sciences and the UNESCO Chair for Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Without attention to broader interdependent contexts, the capacity development of individuals and even institutions will always be limited,

As researchers lament the impact of cuts to ODA funding, it is important to remind ourselves that the trend has been underway for almost a decade. In fact, there is some irony that the GCRF itself was amongst the first steps in the journey to reallocate funds away from international development and into the domestic UK higher education sector. But at the same time, the conditions of ODA also enabled a level of scrutiny and advocacy that created space for more open, responsive, participatory, accountable and learning-oriented research policy and practice. The question we should be asking ourselves now is how such principles might be sustained when the conditions of ODA are no longer mandatory. 

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