Is US funding for development research at risk?

By Catherine Cheney 07 February 2017

The University of California, Davis, hosts an event about the SDGs and research to action on the African continent. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

Since the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted, higher education professionals have worked across departments and reached across borders to advance the agenda, with universities offering the kind of interdisciplinary expertise needed to solve such complex problems as eradicating poverty in all its forms by 2030. But researchers who rely on the U.S. government for funding say they may now be in the difficult position of having to defend their work and demonstrate their value to an “America first” administration.

Last month, Devex attended an event at the University of California, Davis — which receives much of its funding for global research from USAID — about how universities can work toward the SDGs and transform research into action. 

Many of the researchers who were at that event rely on funding from the U.S. government. UC Davis is home to five of the 24 Feed the Future Innovation Labs, a collaboration between U.S. universities and developing country research institutions centered on the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. Although the event had been in the works for many months, the unexpected results of the U.S. presidential election cast a shadow of uncertainty over many of the conversations.

Partnerships between higher education institutions in the U.S. and the developing world can contribute toward the SDGs not only through research outcomes but also by supporting individuals in developing countries to advance solutions, said Montague Demment, vice president of International Programs at the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities, in a conversation with Devex.

“What country in the world has developed without a good higher education system?” he asked. “Zero… Higher education systems produce the kinds of people who will achieve the SDGs within these countries. You can’t run countries based on an 8th grade education.”

The benefits of investing in higher education extend from individual learners to society as a whole, such as strengthening human capital, Demment added.

The White House under former President Barack Obama was supportive of such partnerships. When USAID launched its Higher Education Solutions Network in 2012, former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah pointed to the key role that universities can play in achieving what were then the Millennium Development Goals. “We will recapture the legacy of science, technology, and innovation as core drivers of development,” he said.

But the future outlook on initiatives like these, as well as individual research focused on poverty in the developing world, remain in question under the administration of President Donald Trump.

At UC Davis and beyond, researchers are making the case that their work is more important now than ever.

“It is imperative for USAID to maintain (if not expand) its leadership in technology innovation, applied scientific research, and social innovation,” wrote a number of researchers working with the Development Impact Lab, a program at UC Berkeley, in response to a USAID request for information in Nov. 2016. “In these domains, US research universities are world class leaders.”

Universities are instrumental in developing new technologies and techniques to allocate resources to the poorest, monitor the outcomes of development interventions, and track progress against the SDGs, Temina Madon, executive director of the Center for Effective Global Action at UC Berkeley, told Devex. They also play a role in designing and evaluating interventions that can be scaled by governments, she said, and they can even ease some of the challenges governments face in partnering with the private sector by providing assessments of the impact of data or technology.

But despite the importance of this work, funding for high-quality research to advance global development is a perennial issue, Madon said. “There isn't a strong lobby for poor people in developing countries,” she said. In addition, research is an intrinsically uncertain, risky investment demanding patience and long-time horizons, which turns many development agencies away, she said.

Yet government agencies are not the only source of funding for this kind of work, said Stephen Luby, a professor at Stanford University.

“It has always been a challenge to get funding for research,” he told Devex. “These cuts come and go, and now may be a particularly hostile time, but the underlying dynamic doesn’t change.”

Rather than sit back and wait as the heads of U.S. government agencies are confirmed, universities need to consider the growing number of alternative sources of funding, he said.

Luby is part of an international consortium of researchers that last month received funding from the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest medical research charity.

He suggested that researchers should start by figuring out what their questions are, and then figure out where they could get funds to answer those questions — whether that is the U.S. government or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

With questions arising over the future of U.S. government funding for global development, private foundations seem to be considering whether they can play an even more catalytic role in supporting higher education, Luby said.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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