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Saving the world

Why is the global challenges fund looking wobbly?

Remember the Global Challenges Research Fund? In last year’s autumn statement, George Osborne earmarked an eye-watering £1.5 billion for a fund that ticks some important boxes.

But as Anna McKie reports on page 4 of this final Research Fortnight of 2016, it seems that the change of government may have put the fund’s longer-term future in jeopardy.

Readers will recall that the fund was originally intended to achieve at least two objectives. First, and most important, was to create a significant pot of money to enable UK researchers to work collaboratively, crossing disciplinary boundaries to tackle global challenges.

From biodiversity loss to bioeconomic growth, the list of big-ticket issues in need of intelligent public policymaking is expanding. Many previous attempts at galvanising discipline-based communities to respond in a meaningful way have struggled, in part because the funding has been out of proportion to the scale of the challenge. This fund in that sense really was a game-changer.

But it isn’t just about assisting scientists: it had a particular benefit for Whitehall too, as much of the fund would count towards the UK’s contribution to development assistance, which successive governments have pledged to peg at 0.7 per cent of GDP.

So what then is the problem? The answer lies in the following five words: United Kingdom Research and Innovation.

As its name implies, UKRI will have a specific mandate to create interdisciplinary partnerships. And perhaps because of this, the bean counters are questioning the need for the Global Challenges Research Fund’s continued existence beyond 2021.

Why do we think this is the case? Well, despite its size and scale, recent government research and spending announcements have made no mention of the fund. That is unusual, because when a particular idea, policy or phrase is in Whitehall vogue, government departments and agencies are always in a rush to remind the rest of us what they are and why they are important.

In that respect, news of the Global Challenges Research Fund has been curiously absent in recent weeks. There is no mention of it in forward plans published by the Department for International Development. In addition, no mention was made of it in chancellor Philip Hammond’s autumn statement—in which he otherwise pledged an extra £4.7 billion between 2017-18 and 2020-21. 

Such downgrading of global challenges, if indeed it is happening, is unfortunate. While it is true that UKRI’s reason for existence is not dissimilar to that of the Global Challenges Research Fund, there are critical differences. For one, UKRI will have a strong commercial innovation function. Such innovation is not (at least so far) a major part of the fund’s remit.

The good people at Research Councils UK understand the fund’s importance to all of you, which is why programme manager Mark Claydon-Smith has called on grantees to talk about its impacts more forcefully.

We at Research Fortnight would wholeheartedly support this call and in the new year intend to demonstrate our support more vigorously.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight