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When trust is gone

UKRI and government must prevent more shockwaves from aid cuts

Three months after Research Professional News revealed that the government’s decision to slash the UK’s aid budget would mean huge cuts to aid-funded research projects, the fallout for researchers continues to mount. In Africa, researchers have reported “massive disruptions”, with cuts and cancellations affecting projects on the continent and beyond in healthcare, conflict prevention and water sustainability, to name only a few.

In the UK, researchers and universities are still desperately trying to unpick what the headline funding shortfall of £120 million faced by UK Research and Innovation means for their specific projects. This week, researchers involved with Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) projects called into question UKRI’s management of the situation, reporting errors in figures sent to research institutions and questioning the funder’s decision-making processes.

UKRI was dealt a terrible hand by the government’s decision to reduce the aid budget, with funding slashed after commitments to researchers had been made. Even amid the pain felt by researchers, there was genuine empathy with the funder’s position. But that has been eroded by UKRI’s management of the cuts themselves, and the trust that underpins the funder’s relationship with academics and institutions is taking a big hit.

Back in April, several advisers to GCRF programmes and more than 30 academics who peer reviewed for UKRI stepped down from these roles in protest at the cuts, with a letter signed by the former peer reviewers saying they “cannot with a clear conscience continue to contribute to a UK research funding system that allows for such a breach of trust”.

That breakdown has now seeped further into the sector, as research teams try to establish what will happen to their schemes now and in future years. As one researcher said this week, “Before, we felt we were protected; we no longer do.”

Ultimately, UKRI’s £8 billion a year budget means that most researchers will not have the option of walking away from its funding. But that should not in any way undermine the severity of the current situation. 

The UK has long been a powerhouse of research, despite many imperfections in its R&D ecosystem. In the middle of a pandemic, of all times, the obvious value of that expertise should not need further comment. But, as our editorials have stated before, the aid-funded research cuts scandal is a thread that, now pulled, could rapidly unravel the fabric of the research system, undermining long-standing practices that rely on a high degree of mutuality and trust: peer review; institutions’ funding of project costs up front; academics contributing scientific advice. 

With researchers now openly challenging the ability of the UK’s national research funder to manage a major change to its programmes, even a change not of its choosing, that unravelling has started.

UKRI urgently needs to restore clarity over the future of aid-funded projects, and it needs government backing to do that—in the best case, with a return to aid-spending levels of 0.7 per cent of gross national income. If it cannot, the relationships UK research relies on could well come apart at the seams. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight