Foreign aid cuts: now is not the time to step back

Posted on May 17, 2021   by Eva Scholtus

The UK is facing severe financial pressures because of COVID-19 and its impact on the economy. As a result, the UK government has decided to reduce the funds available for Official Development Assistance (ODA), which includes research projects funded via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) from the ODA budget. In this blog, Eva Scholtus discusses the impact of these cuts. 


The consequences of the decision are far-reaching for the health and wellbeing of some of the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised members of our global community, and for the creation of the next generation of young researchers in ODA-recipient countries and in the UK, individuals whose skills will be essential if we are to find solutions to the many challenges facing our world. 

UKRI has been given £125m in ODA funding by the UK Government for the financial year 2021– 22, but has £245m in existing funding commitments. The £120m shortfall means UKRI has to cut ongoing research projects in the UK and developing countries. UKRI has said it can only fund projects until the end of July and that almost 900 projects are affected. 

© iStock/z_wei

With the agreement of the Council of the Society, we have recently signed an open letter urging the UK government to reverse the decision to suspend the commitment to invest 0.7 per cent of gross national income on ODA and to restore the UKRI ODA budget.

In addition to being extremely damaging to the research base, the ODA cuts directly contradict the UK government’s ambition to become a ‘science superpower’ and threaten the nation’s reputation as a credible, reliable and valued research partner. In a year when the UK will be hosting two global summits, the G7 in June and the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November, the announced cuts also leave the UK out of step with global efforts to tackle grand challenges through research-led initiatives and undermine the chances of the UK presidency delivering successful outcomes.   






Commenting on cuts to ODA budget, Dr Tina Joshi, Lecturer in Molecular Microbiology at the University of Plymouth and member of our Impact and Influence Committee said:  

"The recent announcements of cuts to the UK Research budget could not come at the worst possible time for UK researchers. UK researchers have played an essential role in tackling global challenges and in the COVID-19 pandemic, delivering lifesaving solutions at a global scale. These cuts threaten to undo progress in tackling global challenges (e.g. infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and climate change), and mean that researchers will have no choice but to abandon their research partnerships with developing countries. We need the government to reconsider these cuts which is at odds with their ambitions for the UK to be a ‘science superpower’." 

Professor Sarah Main, Executive Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) said: 

"The Government's attitude to building scientific partnerships through overseas development aid seems to be a case of saying one thing and doing another. The language in [the integrated review] would suggest the government understands the importance of overseas aid in supporting R&D collaborations with developing countries, and yet their own national funding agency, UKRI, is being forced to make large-scale cuts to projects funded through international aid programmes. This will mean ending research projects with overseas partners that are already underway, damaging the UK's reputation in the eyes of its partners and making it harder to meet the challenges outlined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals." 

It is not the first time that cuts to overseas aid spending are threatening to undermine the UK’s efforts towards combatting the world's most pressing challenges. Back in 2006, Bill Gates commented on calls by some newspapers and politicians to abandon the UK’s cross-party commitment to spend 0.7% of its GNI on international development: "Maintaining the 0.7% commitment provides developing countries with the predictability they need to budget and plan. This is important so they know if they will have the resources necessary to deliver essential services like keeping hospitals open, getting babies their vaccinations and ensuring that children have the nourishment they need to succeed in school […]. In my view, Britain should be praised, not ridiculed, for sticking to this commitment. It was a well-considered decision that sets an example for other wealthy Western countries […]. Withdrawing aid would cost lives - which is reason enough to continue it. But it would also create a leadership vacuum that others will fill, undermining the UK's influence in these regions."

In a 2006 speech, Bill Gates also warned that foreign aid reduces the threat of deadly pandemic diseases and that “a health crisis somewhere is a health crisis everywhere”. A message that he recently reaffirmed by urging the UK to restore its overseas aid budget as soon as possible, saying it is of ‘critical importance’ in getting vaccines to the developing world.

Many UK researchers contributing to the ongoing global effort to counter the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been directly affected by the government’s decision. For example, Professor Oliver Pybus (University of Oxford) co-led the team of scientists who analysed the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK and produced the most fine-scaled and comprehensive genomic analysis of transmission of any epidemic to date. Following the government’s announcement, Professor Pybus saw his group’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) One Health Poultry Hub project’s budget cut by 70% after it had been awarded and staff had been appointed. He commented: "These are scientists with world-leading expertise in infectious disease, AMR and genomic surveillance, many of whom have made important contributions to the COVID-19 Genomics Consortium and related projects worldwide. How can we countenance losing their skills and expertise now? This cut will decimate one the world’s largest inter-disciplinary projects for understanding and mitigating the risks of zoonosis in food production in Asia. Let that sink in. It’s hard to conceive of anything more counter-productive ".  

© iStock/PointImages

Professor Wendy Barclay (Imperial College London), whose lab responded to the pandemic by pivoting from influenza to study SARS-CoV-2 and spear-headed efforts to understand how the virus spreads, warned that: “if we want to be sure that we get the best information about the evolution of SARS-Cov-2 and other pathogens overseas, we need to help invest in setting-up good capability in those countries, because it makes sense for individual countries to collect and sequence their own samples. Cuts in ODA funding will counter that being achieved”. 

Championing the contribution made by microbiology, our members and their work in addressing global challenges is one of the Society’s key objectives, as laid out in our ongoing strategy. We will keep calling on the UK government to confirm its stated commitment to expand investment in research and development and enable the use of ODA to support R&D partnerships with developing countries. 

Members’ input is important to inform the Society’s engagement with this issue, as we work with partner societies and organisations to help ensure science is effectively supported and represented in the funding negotiations. If you have been, or expect to be, affected by the cuts in ODA funding, please share your thoughts or experiences with us by emailing the Policy team at [email protected]