The Global Challenges Research Fund aims to ensure UK research plays a leading role in addressing problems faced by developing countries. To Tina Fahm of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the fund represents a welcome increase in the UK’s ambition in development research, drawing on well-established mechanisms for identifying research excellence and promoting interdisciplinary work on complex development challenges. However, to have a truly transformative effect the fund would benefit from a more strategic approach, with focus concentrated in high-priority, high-impact areas. Furthermore, the GCRF must do more to help strengthen poorer countries’ research capacity. The ICAI has four recommendations on how the GCRF might be developed.

Recent university rankings show that the UK is among the best places in the world for research and higher education. Our academics and researchers are world-leaders, constantly pushing the boundaries of science in an attempt to improve the world around them. So it makes sense, given the UK government’s ongoing commitment to international aid, to harness this incredible talent as we tackle the biggest global challenges of our time, and aim to transform the lives of the world’s poorest people.

That’s why the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – the body which scrutinises taxpayer-funded UK aid – welcomes the idea behind the relatively newly established Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). The fund, which falls under the authority of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), was announced in November 2015. With a large budget of £1.5 billion over five years it aims to ensure UK research plays a “leading role in addressing the problems faced by developing countries”. It will do this by “harness[ing] the expertise of the UK’s world-leading research base to strengthen resilience and response to crisis” in developing countries.

We reviewed the early stages of the fund, speaking with or surveying stakeholders and analysing key documents. We concluded that, from a high-level perspective, the fund is a welcome increase in the UK’s ambition in development research, and that it has drawn on well-established mechanisms for identifying research excellence, adapting them to the different requirements for aid spending – many of which might be new to UK academics. ICAI also found that in the fund’s short lifespan it has begun to innovate on traditional models of public research funding – particularly through the promotion of interdisciplinary work on complex development challenges, such as non-communicable diseases and forced displacement. All of this is positive news when it comes to maximising the benefits of that UK excellence for development.

However it is precisely because of that excellence that we concluded the GCRF needs a more strategic and focused approach. If it’s going to have a truly transformative effect – which given the quality of the UK’s higher education, it should certainly be aiming for – then it must be more driven by key priorities to be greater than the sum of its parts. But in terms of “focus” the GCRF went for the breadth of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Given the wide-ranging nature of the SDGs agenda – there are 17 goals and 169 targets – this grand overarching aim has resulted in a rather scattered portfolio of research projects, rather than a concentration of effort on pressing global development challenges.

In contrast, the more strategic approach of other, albeit different, research funds highlights the benefit of ensuring clarity of purpose from the start. For example, in its work on eradicating polio the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation designed a portfolio specifically around that challenge, which had been identified based on analysis of the research community. It’s been hugely successful and there is now hope that the world could be free of the disease by 2020. Meanwhile USAID, the Swedish Development Agency and the Rockefeller Foundation began their work on research projects by initiating a broad portfolio of pilot activities, then scaled up over time, to achieve tighter strategic focus. We found that the GCRF had not learnt from these examples, and as a result did not have focused objectives in high-priority and high-impact areas, which could really have harnessed the UK expertise.

Going back to those university rankings again. Although they are positive for the UK, they tell a different story in other areas. Just five of the top 500 universities in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. This suggests that one of the ways our UK aid could help people in developing countries is by helping to strengthen poorer countries’ research capacity. Yet the GCRF is not fulfilling its potential here. By and large the fund seeks to build research capacity in developing countries by encouraging UK universities to include southern institutions in their applications. But the early rounds of GCRF funding approval were done rapidly, which left UK research institutions having to rely on existing research partnerships, which were mainly in middle-income countries (including China and India, which has caused disquiet in some parts of the media). And without clarity of purpose regarding support for southern research institutions, the GCRF’s focus on research excellence may continue to advantage developing countries that are considered to have more “credible” research institutions. This may be to the detriment of poorer countries where capacity-building may be most needed.

Given its wide-ranging remit, and its new status, the GCRF had the chance to engage with new academics doing ground-breaking work in settings different from the norm. But the fund isn’t seizing that chance. To rectify this, the GCRF needs to reconsider how it encourages partnerships between UK researchers and their counterparts across the globe. That’s why this, and the need for a more strategic approach to the fund, feature as part of four recommendations ICAI made to government:

  1. To increase its prospects of achieving transformative research impact, the GCRF should develop a more deliberate strategy that encourages a concentration of research portfolios around high-priority global development challenges, with a stronger orientation towards development impact.
  2. The GCRF should develop clearer priorities and approaches to partnering with research institutions in the global South.
  3. BEIS should develop a results framework for assessing the overall performance, impact, and value for money of the GCRF portfolio, drawing on DFID’s guidelines on value for money in research and evidence programming.
  4. With the increase in investment in development research across the UK government, the responsible departments should put in place a standing coordination body to clarify roles and responsibilities, avoid duplication and overlap, and facilitate the exchange of learning.

We hope these recommendations will be useful as the GCRF develops.

The GCRF has potential as an innovative and transformative method of addressing global research challenges. But for it to be as good as it can be – and as good as the UK research community should demand, given its high standards – the fund needs to address these recommendations as it invests in tackling global challenges.

For more information, read ICAI’s full review here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

Featured image: globe by Martin Abegglen. This work is licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

About the author

Tina Fahm is commissioner of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and an LSE governor.

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