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Ending the Global Challenges Research Fund is wrong


UK scheme has pioneered hugely effective development projects at home and abroad, says Neelam Raina

At the end of last year, I completed a three-year secondment to UK Research and Innovation, as the challenge leader for security, protracted conflict, refugee crises and forced displacement for the Global Challenges Research Fund. I was one of nine such leaders across the six GCRF portfolios of health, food systems, conflict and migration, resilience and climate, education in conflict, and sustainable cities. 

Our job was to promote the fund’s vision of supporting honest, committed and focused research. The GCRF’s structure recognised that research done in silos and divided by geography will struggle to address global challenges and inform policy, and that genuine progress requires researchers to work collectively, as equals, with a solutions-focused approach. Carved out of overseas development assistance (ODA), this challenge-led, interdisciplinary approach is in the vanguard of large-scale research on global development goals. 

By July 2019, the GCRF was supporting 4,956 researchers and 1,876 organisations to collaborate through 834 projects across the UK and more than 120 other countries. It also established 12 interdisciplinary research hubs to study some of the world’s greatest challenges. These hubs enabled the GCRF to deliver a coordinated global action to the challenges. 

Working for the GCRF showed me the value of a fund that treats all researchers and their ideas, solutions and partnerships equitably. The fund’s design connects impactful research to policy, helping it to be scaled up. It gave UK science a leading role in addressing developing countries’ problems, while developing our ability to deliver cutting-edge research. 

And yet on 21 February it emerged that the government is closing the GCRF after a single five-year funding period. It is too great a success to be shut down.

Equity at its core

The GCRF’s impact stemmed from high-level thinking, strategic planning and stakeholder engagement aimed at developing equitable research partnerships strong enough to withstand crisis. 

This simple concept took time to build into a UK system designed to privilege domestic researchers, but the ODA ring-fence allowed projects to grow from small exploratory grants for partnership building, using a range of delivery methods that allowed partners from developing nations to lead the direction of research. In GCRF-funded projects, research capacity was not just built, it was exchanged. 

Projects built collectively, with a transparent and committed approach on the ground, achieved more impact than could have been imagined. Partnerships based on equity and trust proved their worth by continuing when the pandemic made travel impossible. 

In my time at the GCRF, it became a respected brand and a partner of choice for other major development research funders. These included many national agencies and the UN Development Programme, in particular the UNDP’s 91 accelerator labs, which pioneer exchanges between research and policymaking. The UNDP partnership highlighted the GCRF’s capacity to fund challenging research without stepping on political toes, as projects were designed, owned and conducted by local partners. 

An absence of matched funding requirements made participating in GCRF projects easier for researchers in poorer countries compared with many other mechanisms. The fund forged partnerships with networks such as the African Research Universities Alliance and the African Academy of Sciences, building equitable relationships and improving development outcomes. It also promoted partnerships with global policymakers, not just in applying research, but in designing funding calls and review panels. This built impact and value into funded projects from the start.

Big shift in short order

In the UK, the GCRF shifted thinking and planning around interdisciplinarity in universities, helping them leave their comfort zone of familiar names, publications and conferences. 

Institutions built up internal events, fund-delivery structures and knowledge-exchange offices, including new roles and posts, to promote the fund’s asks and application processes. Disciplinary and geographical boundaries dissolved, and ideas started to flow. 

Researchers in international development and beyond bought into the GCRF, and its approach has built systemic change, creating a more equal and collaborative research culture and making policymaking part of the research process. The decision to shut it down, when it was so well designed to address exactly the intersecting global inequalities we face, is wasteful, short-sighted, and should be reversed. 

Neelam Raina is associate professor of design and development at Middlesex University

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight