UK aid-funded research booming but groups seek more local capacity

A closeup of microscopic oculars. Photo by: Shopify Partners

LONDON — Funding for international development research in the United Kingdom needs to be better joined up, more creative in demonstrating impact, and driven by research institutions in partner countries, experts agreed at the launch of the rebranded UK Collaborative on Development Research at the Wellcome Trust on Monday.

“Whereas we still have new tools, new crops, new vaccines, I think that the easy solutions are really behind us,” Professor Peter Piot, chair of the UKCDR’s board and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in a keynote address. The nature of the problems we are trying to solve also means research “has to be cross-, inter-, multidisciplinary, and in strong partnership not only [with] institutions in partner countries, but also the communities we are operating in,” he said.

The U.K.’s effort to spend 30 percent of its £14 billion ($18.33 billion) aid budget through departments other than the Department for International Development by 2020 has resulted in a greater proportion of aid spent on research. UKCDR estimates that the government is on track to spend £1.2 billion on development research by 2021, compared with £390 million at the time of the cross-government strategy launch in 2015.

Yet the increase in research budgets could entrench challenges that already threaten the cross-government strategy, namely a lack of transparency and coordination. Piot and others from Wellcome and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the UK’s aid watchdog, said that to protect against this, leading institutions spending aid on research must find common ground to work across sectors, and help drive research funding and capacity to the communities on which aid research centers.

“The whole research career structure and financial structure is based on overheads and publications by investigators in universities, and yet our vision is that research with people in low- to middle-income countries should be driven by them and led by them. So how do we bring that together?” Piot said. “This I see as a big challenge.”

Formerly the Collaborative on Development Studies, UKCDR underwent a governance shake-up last year. It appointed a governing board focused on “Strategic Coherence of ODA-funded Research,” comprised of executives from many of the U.K.’s top research funders, including DFID; the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy; UK Research and Innovation; and the Wellcome Trust.

Understanding how research can better engage aid policy

At the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference, a new report from the Research for Development Impact Network outlined the impacts the research community has had on aid policy. Speaking with Devex, RDI Network Project Steering Group member Joanne Crawford discussed the findings and recommendations for both researchers and donors to create an aid program that better utilizes evidence-based policy.

The organization aims to use this high-level cooperation to pursue four key aims over the next four years, including mapping and analysis of members’ development research efforts; convening for collaboration and joint action; sharing information, learning, and best practice; and creating a “collective voice to shape policy,” according to the new strategy.

Though the launch boasted high-level influencers in U.K. development and research — including officials from DFID, the Department of Health and Social Care, and ICAI — delegates outlined a number of challenges for UKCDR.

Capacity building

Janet Midega, science officer in drug-resistant infections at the Wellcome Trust, pointed out during a panel discussion that the research field has long been driven not by a desired outcome, but by the priorities of funding institutions typically based in the “global north.” Demonstrable impact, Midega said, will require “designing our research funding programs in a way that the community is engaged and involved ... so that they understand exactly [how] they’re meant to benefit from the research,” she said. “This also enhances sustainability and improves the long-term benefits of the research.”

Working backward from an honest assessment of country needs toward research capacity and funding will result in better, more sustainable outcomes, Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser at the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care said, adding that he hoped one role UKCDR could play is to help funders and recipients “think this through.”

The Global Challenges Research Fund — a £1.5 billion fund announced as part of the 2015 U.K. aid strategy — is “thinking a lot about this at the moment,” Diana Dalton, deputy director of the research and evidence division at DFID, added, saying that DFID is investing in systems and institutions strengthening, as well as research fellowships.

On the other hand, Alison Evans, chief commissioner of ICAI, argued that it isn’t enough.

“I just don’t think we do the capacity building thing well at all in this space ... I think there’s a lot of goodwill, but I don’t think we’ve cracked it by any means,” she said.

“I’m glad to see the GCRF are now being part of trying to push the frontier a bit on this but it’s very clear that a good percentage of the initial resource at the GCRF went to essentially the usual suspects, adding to existing activities. That isn’t really what it was intended to do.”

Piot added that this is “because our system of review of research in the U.K. has a big problem.” There is a “dictatorship of review panels, which means regression to the mean, no risk taking, and usually the same old boys get the funding. So we need something also that will find a compromise, where you have the guardians of research integrity, competency, and excellence, but we need a system that’s equally valid about relevance,” he said.

Midega and Piot also agreed that at the level of higher education in low- and middle-income countries — where development researchers of the future are minted — neither the public nor private sector is investing sufficiently at the human level.

“I wonder if higher education should not become part of the international development agenda. It’s always considered that primary and secondary education is a public good, while higher education is a private good. Irrespective of country, I think that’s probably wrong,” Piot said.

Evans added that the question of bolstering capacity is inextricably linked to higher education, adding that it’s “not something that you can do as an afterthought ... so we’ve got to, in that sense, think differently about how to do it.”

What is impact?

Delegates also addressed the challenge of demonstrating the impact of research, especially for more complex sectors when faced with competing political priorities and the ticking clock of funding cycles.

Dalton said that part of the problem is the typical three-year research funding cycle at DFID, which isn’t enough to demonstrate impact on public discourse, for example. But she added: “I read lots of annual reviews and ... what I’ll see quite often in terms of impact is, ‘we had a dissemination event attended by 60 people, we produced this many reports, it was published in this many journals,’ and that’s obviously not the impact, that’s outputs,” she said. “More skill is needed” in measuring things like policy impact, she said.

Update, June 29: This story was amended to clarify the relationship between UKCDR and ICAI

About the author

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.