The relationship between the UK’s research endeavour and its international partners is likely to change in coming years as a result of changes in domestic funding streams and a potentially sharp exit from EU funded research projects. In this post James Georgalakis argues that if the UK is seeking to be truly ‘Global’ in terms of research, there is a need to invest in research that isn’t simply delivered to international partners, but which involves long-term investment in research partnerships operating outside of the UK.

UK researchers working in the higher education sector have an unprecedented opportunity to forge new international partnerships to promote equitable and sustainable development. The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) established in 2015 has a budget of over £1.5 billion over five years. UK Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) investment in research and innovation was £414 million in 2018-19 and  the newly published International Research and Innovation strategy articulates a commitment on the part of UK government to invest 2.4 per cent of GDP in research and development by 2027.

Despite this there is still a pervading sense of uncertainty around the future role for the UK’s scientific community in international collaborations focused on development, many of which are currently funded by the European Union. However, if fully exploited such opportunities could be a pleasant balm against a potentially bruising Brexit.

Fostering international and equitable research partnerships

However, if these international aspirations are to become a reality there are some major obstacles to international transdisciplinary partnerships to be addressed. Truly international collaborations involve handing over some of the funding to partners. A recent critical report by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on the Newton Fund has raised serious questions about why 90 per cent of the ODA funding has stayed in UK institutions, when the Fund was envisioned to support innovation partnerships with those working in developing countries. The UK Government and research councils could do more to ensure this distribution of funds benefits and builds the capacity of researchers in developing countries.

The challenges for building international research partnerships don’t stop there. In a study by the Impact Initiative of Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID) funded-research, we found that partners involved in projects all had very different agendas. From academics engaged in long term research, to development agencies rolling from one project to the next and to government officials seeking to implement flagship policies, they all collaborated for very different reasons. Despite having disparate motivations and timescales, a number of projects were still able to engage with the communities they were seeking to improve the lives of, and contribute to evidence-informed policy formulation. Whether researchers’ partners are NGOs, government agencies or the private sector, the trick seems to be to find enough common ground to make the collaboration a productive one.

Making research speak to policy

As I’ve highlighted elsewhere, in partnerships that span research and policy or practice, you can strive for fairness, transparency and ethical standards, but don’t look at your partner and expect to see yourself staring back. In democracies, policy makers, their advisors and civil servants have quite different accountabilities and evidence needs to a university. Just because research is epistemologically robust does not make it fit for policy.

Policy actors inevitably need viable and quite short-term solutions that will meet with public approval but researchers are sometimes hard-pressed to deliver these, and quite rightly are concerned about short-term demands undermining much-needed investment in long-term research. Reconciling these different positions is challenging – acknowledging them in the first place is a useful starting point.

To admit that agendas can only be partially aligned is to free oneself of unrealistic goals and the tokenistic use of the term partnership. Power asymmetries will always exist in the production and use of evidence.  The real test is whether there is sufficient agreement on what the problem is and what a good outcome might look like.  Just take as an example, the extraordinary progress made by the international research collaboration YourWorldResearch who managed to highlight the challenges faced by children and young people in Ethiopia’s new national youth policy. This was despite traditionally very negative attitudes in the Government towards children living and working on the streets.

The other projects we looked at ranged from attempts to leverage evidence around the lived experiences of pastoralists in Ethiopia, the influencing of regional strategies to improve health systems in Southern Africa to promoting more inclusive education in India and Uganda. In none of these contexts were researchers working as equal partners in policy processes or shared identical mandates. Nonetheless, by carefully navigating these contested spaces they did influence the use of evidence.

Global Britain supporting global development

This is no longer simply about the Research Excellence Framework (REF) or debates about impact versus academic rigour or the UK’s commitment to our 0.7% ODA target. UK Universities and research organisations could be leading the way in establishing international collaborations that forge closer links between research and policy for development. The impact agenda has helped many to scale down from their ivory towers but ODA funding now demands we venture far beyond the island where they were erected.

If we are serious about promoting ‘Global Britain’ as open for business and a world leader in international research then the UK Government and UK universities must invest in building sustainable research partnerships that value local knowledge and southern research expertise as much as the careers of academics at home. Only through effective partnerships can we demonstrate the value of UK taxpayers’ investment in research funding, and play our role on the world stage in helping to tackle climate breakdown, disease outbreaks, conflict, rapid urbanisation and food insecurity.


About the author

James Georgalakis is the Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). He is also currently enrolled at the University of Bath as a Doctoral Candidate in Policy Research and Practice. His research interests relate to the role of networks and relationships in the mobilisation of research knowledge for development.


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 Credit, Franck V via Unsplash (Licensed under a CC0 1.0 licence)

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