GCRF’d

Twenty-four hours before universities closed for the Easter break, the heads of twelve international research projects received a letter from the funding super-council UKRI, instructing them to either cease activity altogether or make do on just one third of scheduled monies for 2021-22. The twelve ‘Hubs’, as they are known, work on everything from water security to child nutrition, trade to gender, oceans to slums. Supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and each lasting five years, they provided over a thousand jobs across the UK and as many as eighty-five other countries. The Hubs were required to accept the terms and return details of their contortions – paying due heed to “equality, diversity and inclusion”, natch – within three and a half weeks, national holidays included. In this they faced the same ultimatum as a catalogue of other projects of varying scales and aims financed by GCRF or the Newton Fund, collectively deprived of hundreds of millions of pounds in one fell blow. The year’s settlement is almost £300 million less than UKRI had spent in 2020-21 and £120 million less than what was needed just to meet existing promises, a crisis triggered by the government’s reduction of development aid to 0.5% of GDP, adding gratuitous policy fuel to the economic fire of the pandemic.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer explained that austerity ultimately served the end of “doing aid better”, a near-hallucinogenic level of gaslighting atop the material harm.[1] The direction to ‘reprofile’ demanded such changes at such pace that it may be understood as a starvation tactic, leaving at least some projects with no option but to fold with immediate effect. Compounding the shock, Hubs are forbidden to spend any more than the fraction of what they were due, even where they hold more in reserves.[2] It hardly needs demonstrating that a spasm of this intensity inflicts immediate damage to livelihoods, partnerships and careers. Early career researchers facing redundancy, contracts broken, a year of pent-up plans rendered useless, trust squandered. Some of the ramifications are absurd: because they had been instructed to continue as planned, despite the pandemic and even after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced the headline aid cuts in November last year, Hubs had organised fieldwork, rescheduled conferences, advertised jobs and appointed staff, in some cases reviewing and awarding hundreds of thousands of pounds to new projects only to pull the plug mere days after notifying applicants. Callousness piled upon wastefulness, as when an expert in water management moved countries with a young family only to learnt of the cuts in their first week on the job. The damage is unequally distributed: many if not most GCRF posts are in the global south, along with their most immediate beneficiaries, where resources to absorb the damage are in shortest supply.

Condemnations and appeals for clemency have flowed from all directions: the Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Royal Society, UKRI’s own independent advisors (a number of them now resigned in protest), the last British governor of Hong Kong, the Development Studies Association, the Academy of Europe, the Royal College of Pediatrics, Bob Geldof. On paper, UKRI forecasts that all Hubs will eventually receive the full funds pledged, provided they can survive a few years of purgatory. But there are suspicions that GCRF money may not return even when development aid does (and it may never). It is rumoured that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sees past funding decisions as excessively oriented towards ‘development’ over ‘science’ (not the greatest crime for projects funded by development aid, even if you accept the hard distinction between science and development research, which you shouldn’t). What was at first explained as a cashflow bottleneck becomes an accusation of deficiency, a problem located somewhere in the intellectual mission itself. Research England chief David Sweeney counsels that researchers must prove their utility to the nation and “build their case” anew. Gone are the days of the research grant as “charitable donation”. A charitable donation! The rebuke is more than an insult; it mangles the recent history of UK aid and exposes, if inadvertently, the fault-lines of the new national mission.

As practically everyone has noticed, the decimation (sexagintimation?) of funds is radically at odds with the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, barely two weeks old when the URKI decree dropped and which pledged:

a new framework for international science partnerships, putting science and technology at the heart of our alliances and partnerships worldwide… we will continue to use ODA to support research and development partnerships with developing countries, sharing research expertise in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Those same Sustainable Development Goals constituted the original ‘challenge’ in ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’, the declared policy aims of the UK government around which Hub members had organised years of thought and practice. Far from beneficiaries of absent-minded exuberance, applicants had in fact navigated a gauntlet of expectations and Whitehall lingo, adapting to funder common sense on what constituted ‘impact’ or ‘peace’, competitively whittled in stages from three hundred proposals to twelve. One Hub was, for example, encouraged in late 2017 to drop Northern Ireland as a research site on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently conflict-affected or post-conflictual, a criticism all the more myopic in retrospect. Notice too how often the funder’s own literature praised the benefits for policy-makers and communities, a grand exercise in putting the academy to profitable work in the world.

That quango chiefs might dismiss as an altruistic gift what government strategy had framed as a necessity indicates a suddenly shifting ground. But the vertigo is not that of ‘charity’ replaced by ‘science’ under the pressure of a mass death event, but of rival Global Britains, each commandeering research for its own ends. On the one side, a semi-autonomous field of expertise and talent for which the UK takes credit and from which it draws indirect profit. On the other, disaster chauvinism, research centres as much as cultural institutions subordinated to ministerial whim, endlessly repurposed to fit the imperative of the moment. It is the latter towards which the government now tilts, an impromptu boosterism that is at once parochial – British research for British people! – and imperious – our universities as a great laboratory, operated to the benefit of all mankind.

The 2015 Aid Strategy had already announced a “new approach”, a “fundamental” shift in which development aid was justified only insofar as it advanced national interests. Of the four strategic objectives set forth at the time – security, crisis response, prosperity, and eliminating poverty – only the last partly indulged a moral calling, even then straining to explain that meeting basic needs would ultimately advance ‘stability’, that most mercurial of interests. Rather than the insouciant benevolence of a metropolitan elite, the channeling of the development budget into research funding in truth reasserted the primacy of the state, at every turn coupling humanitarian benefits with foreign policy goals. The Strategy’s awkward tagline – “tackling global challenges in the national interest” – telegraphed the Conservative Party’s gambit-du-jour, and was to find an echo in Theresa May’s much derided 2017 election slogan, “strong and stable in the national interest”. It is against this background that a department for business and industry could see its claim on the aid budget rise from some £500 million in 2015/16 to over £1 billion in 2019/20.

The imperative to justify research in national terms has only become more intense since 2015, driven first by the Brexity realignment of electoral politics, and then by the decisionist window granted by Covid. Since the acquisition of the Department for International Development, “aid” just means resources held by a supersized foreign ministry, added to its armoury of influence and realpolitik. The machinery of the British state has become both less accountable and seemingly more prone to ‘moonshot’ thinking, where vast investments in fundamental problems are expected to generate leaps in knowledge. No figure represents the change more than Dominic Cummings, late of No. 10 Downing Street but a spectre and symptom still. When he appeared before the Science and Technology Committee in March, Cummings cast himself as an emissary of intellectual freedom, the champion and implied author of “very generous increases” for UKRI pencilled in but now inexplicably reversed.

Cummings’ critique of academic timidity and impact bean-counting will find many reluctant admirers, despite its often laughable rhetoric, but the intellectual freedom he proposes is distinctly Promethean, in search of a rare genius who will move the world if only left to their own devices. Moonshot thinking has its own deep and unresolved tensions, being both a purist vision of unfettered inquiry and explicitly modelled on American agencies that serviced defence and homeland security agendas, a disruptive solution in search of something to break. In the name of scientific excellence it breezes over the diversity of knowledge – collaborative, incremental, critical, emancipatory – generated by actually-existing scientists. It is worth observing at this point that Cummings’ most treasured legacy, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), is housed in the same government department that finances GCRF, and is expected to work through some £200 million a year from 2022.

Whether the crisis is the short-term effect of a regrettable emergency or a warning of deeper realignments, it has put meaningful collaborations at immediate and serious risk. While UKRI preaches care and psychological safety for researchers, nascent gender initiatives in Iraqi Kurdistan are undermined. Despite the ritualistic invocation of equality, diversity and inclusion, no equality assessment has been conducted on the effects of the aid reductions. The disconnect passes without notice, the psychological safety of distant others being at best an afterthought. Ironic, as beyond the usual invocations of interdisciplinarity and ‘research excellence’ (now suddenly irrelevant), the innovation of GCRF was to emphasise international partnerships, mandating cooperation between researchers in the UK and ‘global south’, the latter represented as beneficiaries of aid but more like net contributors of knowledge published in Britain’s name. If there is now skepticism about these partnerships, perhaps it is because they have proved less amenable to control than some had expected, or maybe just too international after all.

Pandemics notwithstanding, the UK can afford to invest in science in all its varieties. As an exercise in national economy, an assault on development aid barely dents the UK’s debt, indeed only makes sense as a more permanent realignment. ARIA’s proposed annual spend is about the same as the Hubs combined for all five years, but still only 1% of government research funding. Other pots have been protected, providing for future grants even as those already underway are stripped bare. A last minute patch was eventually found for the £250 million hole in the Horizon Europe budget. The sums available to international research partnerships are in any case dwarfed by the £37 billion blown on the chronically wasteful Test and Trace system, and by the £16.5 billion increase in defence spending announced in November last year, a portion earmarked for deviations from the non-proliferation treaty, another manifestation of old militarist thinking in the new Global Britain. Appeals made on behalf of starving children and atrocity survivors may even backfire in light of such profligacy, more proof of a woke elite to be assailed, a cleansing vandalism to cheer for. What coalitions are available to reason otherwise?


[1] The harm to the global research community was of course outstripped by the violence done to Yemenis, where humanitarian aid was reduced 60% (while the UK government facilitates the Saudi war effort); the impact on global reproductive rights (already heavily pummelled by the Trump administration); the 25% cut on girls’ education (nominally the Prime Minister’s priority); the denial of basic sanitation measures; and the contempt for small NGOs previously receiving relative pocket change. Calamitously, on and on.

[2] This is ‘underspend’, the result of research councils distributing the total value of an award in equal sized quarterly payments. Since the timing of payments does not exactly track the schedule of activities, it is normal for a project to receive more in its early stages than it spends, an effect hugely aggravated by the Covid pandemic, which forced delays to fieldwork, travel, workshops and recruitment.

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