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Times Higher Education - Professor Andrew Thompson

In their January 9 edition, Times Higher Education has published a piece by AHRC Executive Chair and UKRI’s lead for international, Prof Andrew Thompson, reflecting on the next iteration of the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund. (See page 34.)

Excellence and equity: what should a Global Challenges Research Fund look like?

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the most far-reaching reimagination of the international development agenda since the ideological battles waged amid the Cold War and decolonisation.

The time has gone when solutions to problems located in the Global South were to be found in the Global North. The SDGs recognise that lifting people out of poverty requires North-South partnerships that reconnect economic with social and environmental issues.

Conflict and state fragility, for instance, are major drivers of modern poverty. Climate change is threatening global gains on poverty reduction. And the fact that 60 per cent of Africa’s population is aged under 25 makes the quality and quantity of young people’s employment a pressing global concern.

In short, “research for development” will need to look radically different from what we’re used to. And the overriding aim of the UK’s £1.5 billion Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – which we hope will be renewed for another five years when its first iteration ends next year – should be to catalyse the transition.

There is still widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of foreign aid, so the fund must improve the international development community’s sense of what aid should be spent on – strongly informed by what matters to people in developing countries. And the focus should be on bridging the knowledge gaps that impede effective implementation and delivery. That doesn’t mean confining investment to highly applied, micro-level research that yields results only in the short term. It means getting to grips with the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of poverty – and also recognising that relevant research may take place outside the immediate context of development policy and practice.

The SDGs are inherently holistic and demand interdisciplinary approaches to understand and manage the potential conflicts and synergies between them. An example is the GCRF’s Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub. Ensuring water security for the growing proportion of the world’s population threatened by lack of it demands a broader view of water systems – technical, social, cultural and environmental. Working with 12 partner countries and 55 partner organisations, this hub seeks to address pressures ranging from pollution and land degradation to extreme weather and urbanisation by engaging with local communities, water catchment managers and government ministries.

By linking this and the other 11 hubs to the UN Development Programme’s 60 new SDG Accelerator Labs, we hope to contribute to the UN’s capacity to tackle complex and fast-moving challenges, building on what works locally. We also hope to help the UNDP build academia into its ambition for greater cross-sectoral collaboration, alongside NGOs, governments and, increasingly, the private sector.

The University of Birmingham’s Creative Drought project, focusing on water management in southern Africa, is a good example. It combines local knowledge, gained through engaging farmers and community leaders, with hydrology science. Recovering stories helps convert a fatalistic local perspective into a proactive search for solutions to prepare for and mitigate future droughts.

The UN 2030 Agenda’s insistence that “no one should be left behind” demands more equitable partnerships between Northern and Southern researchers. Leaving behind the hardest to reach initially, in the hope of bringing them along later, is no longer an acceptable price of progress in a world of growing inequalities and – in sub-Saharan Africa, at least – extreme poverty.

It is a striking statistic that 85 per cent of the world’s refugees remain in the Global South while 85 per cent of research on refugees and forced migration is by scholars in the Global North. We need strong ethical protocols on North-South collaborations, paying careful attention to who sets the research agenda, who the research is for, who designs the research, and who owns the knowledge.

In 2016, the number of countries experiencing violent conflict hit a 30-year high, with civilians increasingly vulnerable to the direct and indirect effects. This is why former UN general secretary Kofi Annan has insisted that addressing conflict is now a development imperative. Focusing geographically on areas suffering protracted conflict will be important, as will research on conflict causation and prevention, and on post-conflict recovery (such as the role of education in fostering greater understanding of historic conflicts and atrocities).

Food security and climate must also be fully factored into the study of the development-security nexus. The origins of war in Syria, for instance, have been located by scholars in a significant depletion of water availability since 2003, leading to sharp increases in food prices, malnutrition and migration to urban areas.

While technological innovation co-evolves with economic, social and political systems, it can be harnessed to deliver on the SDGs. Many GCRF projects are exploring advances in wind, solar and battery technologies, as well as the development potential of digital technology. A good example is M-Africa, a mobile phone-connected diagnostic for HIV, which is transforming access to testing and treatment in South Africa, minimising the need for clinic visits. In parallel, a smartphone app is being piloted to investigate participant feelings about self-testing, as well as the phone counselling and support that follows.

Several GCRF technology-based projects raise questions about how cutting-edge science relates to development. For instance, a University of Leeds project to extend access to radio astronomy to southern Africa revealed the need to train African physics graduates in how to operate and exploit the technology. The training of basic scientists, in the firm belief that this will eventually contribute to development, is a facet of human capacity building that definitions of overseas development aid must accommodate if a broader spectrum of the Northern research base is to engage Southern partners meaningfully and effectively.

Moreover, research funding agencies need to be more aware of what each other is funding regarding the SDGs and more willing to spur joint working and international collaboration. They will need to encourage and empower the next generation of researchers in particular to work on global challenges in transformative ways, but without overly directing them or trying to fit their ideas into straitjackets.

In these ways, funding agencies can maximise their contribution to development without undermining either excellence or equity.

Andrew Thompson is executive chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and UK Research and Innovation’s international champion, overseeing the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund. This is an edited version of a lecture he gave at the University of Birmingham on 29 October 2019.

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