Global research partnerships ‘obliterated’ by UK aid cuts

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A health worker checking a child suspected to have malaria. A study seeking to improve understanding of malaria transmission is now at risk due to a budget cut. Copyright: Demissew Bizuwerk, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Speed read

  • More than 800 research projects will be affected by deep cuts to UK aid budget
  • Thousands of scientists call on British government to revoke the plans
  • Leading researchers say cuts undermine trusted partnerships

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Dramatic cuts to UK foreign aid budgets have left the future of hundreds of research projects in developing countries hanging in the balance and trusted partnerships severely undermined, say leading scientists.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) announced on 11 March that its international development budget for 2021/22 had been reduced from £245 million to £125 million as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, leaving a “£120 million gap between allocations and commitments”.

It says more than 800 projects will be affected by the cuts, which will see grants such as those awarded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and Newton Fund significantly reduced or, in some cases, terminated.

“The real concern has to be for our partners, who trusted in this process and the early career researchers who will lose their jobs, and the wasted progress on important development issues,”

Jenni Barclay, professor of volcanology, University of East Anglia

Nick Talbot, executive director of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said it was a “massive breach of trust” to cut ongoing projects of real impact for developing countries. He said he faced a “major cut” to a GCRF project grant in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Talbot, a world-renowned expert in molecular plant pathology, leads a project on rice blast, a disease that can devastate rice yields, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where disease-resistant varieties are lacking and control strategies limited.

“Our project has examined the rice blast pathogen population and provided information on the resistance genes that could defend rice varieties grown locally from infection,” says Talbot. “We have used plant breeding to introduce multiple diseases resistance into locally grown varieties favoured by farmers and consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

The UK team works with partners in Nairobi who house a disease repository and oversee local breeding work, said Talbot, as well as scientists in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Tanzania, and Madagascar.

“It is a highly complex project and we have trained many African scientists, including PhD students.  We have rice varieties in field trials across 17 sites in Africa, and our next stage will be to bring some of the varieties to registration and release to farmers. We need about three to four years’ further funding to achieve this, but the cut we have received puts a lot of that in jeopardy.”

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Talbot said he was doing all he could to maintain partner budgets in Sub-Saharan Africa, but admitted he did not know how he would implement such a deep cut, adding that the exact amount remained under discussion. “It’s heartbreaking for such a successful project to be affected like this,” he said.

In an online briefing, the UKRI says it is working with stakeholders to discuss “the best way forward”. “No one could have foreseen the economic impact of an extended global pandemic when we entered into these longer-term programmes,” it says.

Scientists have mobilised in their thousands to sign petitions calling for the British government to revoke the cuts. “The decimation of this vital funding stream will have drastic impacts,” says one letter signed by more than 5,000 people.

“As well as directly threatening the futures of the vulnerable and marginalised that this funding targets, the resultant abrupt termination of research projects will obliterate the hard-won trust with international development partners and governments overseas,” the letter warns.

Jenni Barclay, a professor of volcanology at the University of East Anglia who authored the letter, said her immediate response was one of “abject horror”. “I cannot believe that the UK government understood what it was doing to ‘global Britain’ by this unprecedented action — to cancel competitively funded projects, or cut others so thoroughly, it’s difficult to see how momentum and trust can be sustained.”

Barclay said the second phase of a GCRF-funded project she worked on had been cancelled, while she was waiting to hear the fate of a project she leads in Quito, Ecuador, under the Urban Disaster Risk Hub, which works to integrate disaster risk management into urban planning. The hub is one of 12 flagship interdisciplinary hubs supported by the GCRF to tackle global challenges such as climate change.

The cuts were “hard to take” for UK scientists, added Barclay, but “the real concern has to be for our partners, who trusted in this process and the early career researchers who will lose their jobs, and the wasted progress on important development issues.”

Asked to respond to the petitions, a spokeswoman for the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “We are working with our delivery partners, including UK Research and Innovation, to implement a new research and development settlement for 2021/22 as part of our wider commitment to maintain the UK’s world-class reputation for science, research and innovation.”

Mara Lawniczak, an evolutionary geneticist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, says she had her budget cut from about £180,000 to £60,000 for a project she leads in Mali, involving single cell RNA sequencing on malaria parasites. The study aims to improve understanding of malaria transmission.

The grant has already funded the building of an insectary next to a clinic serving more than 20,000 people in Ntjiba county, says Lawniczak, as well as contributing to a £60,000 sequencing machine — the first of its kind in West Africa.

When patients go to the clinic for treatment — also partially funded through the project — they are invited to contribute to the study, with thousands of children expected to receive malaria treatment, regardless of whether they take part, said Lawniczak. All that is now at risk, she fears.

“When you are awarded a grant, you would never think that a cut could come after the award has been made, especially not such a dramatic one,” added Lawniczak. She said her research partner in Mali, Abdoulaye Djimde, felt “helpless” about the situation. “If this was a new collaboration and the rug was pulled out from under it like this, why would partners in [low- and middle-income countries] ever want to work with us again? They have invested in this project — people, time, resources, brain power — built on a foundation of trust that the funding is there.”

Djimde said: “These drastic budget cuts are truly unfortunate as they undermine the trust of the communities we work with and the local scientists’ confidence in the international collaboration.”