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Global Challenges Research Fund ‘must hone strategy’

Image: Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

The Global Challenges Research Fund is spreading its resources too thinly across its many programmes, according to a review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which scrutinises UK aid spending on international development.

The £1.5-billion, five-year fund launched in 2016 forms part of the UK government’s overseas aid efforts and aims to address problems faced by developing countries through research and innovation.

The fund seeks to address all 17 sustainable development goals agreed by the UN in 2015.

Simon Maxwell, a development economist and former director of the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank, told Research Fortnight that the fund should focus on fewer, larger programmes rather than allocating money across numerous small proposals. He suggested that three overarching challenges could instead form the direction of the fund: making globalisation work for everyone; climate change; and automation and artificial intelligence.

The report raised concerns over the design of the fund, saying that its alignment with the UN goals had led to a “scattered” portfolio of projects, which could prevent it from making an impact in any one area. “This may make it difficult for the fund to achieve its goal of funding truly original and transformative approaches to multidimensional challenges of economic development,” the report said.

The fund’s weaknesses in strategic direction could also be partly due to its highly decentralised structure, the report suggested. Final decisions on the fund’s design and operating principles lie with universities and science minister Jo Johnson, but calls are run by the research councils, the UK Space Agency, the national academies and the four regional funding councils.

The report criticised the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for giving these government bodies “substantial autonomy” in strategy-setting, “leaving them free to support virtually any Official Development Assistance-compliant research that meets their academic standards”.

A government spokeswoman said it was “not true” to say that the fund lacked strategic direction.

According to its strategy, the fund should focus on partnering with researchers from lower-income countries, to distinguish itself from Newton Fund partners, which are mainly from middle-income countries.

The report said that the quick rollout of the fund over 15 months had probably encouraged UK researchers to work with existing partners—mostly from middle-income countries such as China, India, Kenya and South Africa, rather than from poorer countries. This was limiting the fund’s reach, the report said.

“The report can be read as a wake-up call to strengthen the leadership and implementation of the Global Challenges Research Fund,” said Maxwell. “The question is how you design policy that is inclusive, doesn’t disadvantage communities and prevents alienation.”

The report found that the global reach of the fund had been in part hampered by the lack of a clear communication strategy. Research Councils UK now plans to host regional events in Colombia, India, Kenya and South Africa to forge connections between the UK and potential beneficiary research institutions.

Maxwell also raised concerns over the distribution of funding between partners. The criteria stipulate that an international partner must be included on the bid, but  such partners are not able to apply as a principal investigator or to receive an equal amount of funding as the principal investigator.

“Most of us in the development research community believe very strongly in collaboration, joint ownership and co-creation. You don’t get this by adding it to proposals as a project requirement,” he said.

Bockline Bebe, a professor of livestock production systems at Egerton University in Kenya, has won a Global Challenges Research Fund-funded grant to study how pastoralist communities in Kenya and Mongolia can become more resilient to climate change.

Bebe told Research Fortnight that he had experienced difficulties with local policymakers and end-users because of their high financial demands. He works with pastoralists and climate change policymakers who, he said, have expectations he cannot meet, such as accommodation and transport costs.

“Policymakers come with official vehicles and drivers, and this cost is expected from us. Respondents also want compensation for their time,” he said. The end-users of the research were “cooperative, shared their ideas freely and expressed interest in launching joint interventions” in relation to pastoralism, but the time spent interacting was reduced to save money, he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the department would review the report’s recommendations in due course.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight