The Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) was announced in last year’s spending review (December 2015), and came as something of a surprise to the sector. The previous spending review (2010) had protected the research budget from the worst ravages of austerity, but it was still a flat settlement, and funding was looking a little threadbare five years in.
George Osborne, the Chancellor at the time, sought to remedy this somewhat, and announced that the research budget would rise from £4.7bn to £5.2bn by the end of the parliament (2020).
However, there was a catch. The extra £1.5bn would come from a different pot. It would not come from the budget of the Dept for Business, Innovation and Skills, but rather from International Development, and would aim ‘to develop new solutions to the complex multidimensional problems faced by developing countries.’ Note how the Science budget stagnates in the chart on the right, and GCRF rises.
There was a sense that the Research Councils and academies had been caught on the hop by Osborne’s announcement. A Gatesian framework of themes was cobbled together, like a checklist of desirables for a better world:
- Health: To tackle diseases, strengthen health systems and reach the worlds’ most vulnerable.
- Clean Energy: To provide access to clean energy, including new technologies and the behavioural insights required for successful introduction to developing countries.
- Sustainable Agriculture: To improve nutrition and food security, support technological innovation, and increase resilience to climate change.
- Conflict and humanitarian action: New insights and approaches for preventing conflict and violence, build stability and strengthen humanitarian action.
- Foundations for Inclusive Growth: To understand what works best for developing countries to build the foundations for economic development - macroeconomics, institutions, innovation and private sector growth, cities and infrastructure, education systems, jobs and skills.
There was a sixth theme, a catch all that could best be described as ‘Other’:
- Other potential topics identified include: mass migration and refugee crises and resilient systems.
After the five year famine of the flat settlement, the Research Councils rushed to the groaning table, eager to distribute the bounty before the Government changed its mind. The first calls were rushed out, with short deadlines and expressions of interest.
And this, to be honest, is the state we’re currently in. There’s a sense that there’s a lack of coherence to the current calls, and that the funders are trying to get the money out of the door before the end of the financial year.
But just because it’s currently somewhat light on strategy, the GCRF should not be dismissed as a momentary aberration, a craziness that will pass. The Fund is intended to account for 10% of the UK’s total research budget within five years, by which time it will match the total research expenditure of the BBSRC.
The GCRF is a game-changer, and it behoves us all to understand it and make the most of it. The calls will settle down, there will be more coherence, and we all need to be aware of its aims and objectives if we want to make the most of an increasingly scant funding environment.
So what do you need to know?
- First, this is very much about research that will be of benefit to developing countries. These are defined by the OECD as ‘countries and territories eligible to receive official development assistance’, and the full list is available here. Note that this list does change, and it is understood that it will do so in the autumn, with some of the countries being removed from it. So make sure you check this list, and the countries you want to benefit are still on there.
- You don’t have to work in, or with, those countries - but it helps. Your research is for the benefit of those countries, and should address the problems faced by them, but you don’t have to collaborate with them or do fieldwork in them. Nevertheless, linking fully with them would demonstrate an integration, understanding and knowledge which would be very beneficial to your proposal.
- All disciplines are eligible. This includes the humanities and social sciences. Whilst the AHRC and ESRC get a smaller share of the GCRF pie, they are fully engaged. Have a look, for example, at the AHRC’s Venn diagram on potential topics, here (pdf). Here’s the breakdown by Research Council:
- We don’t yet know where all the money’s going. Note, in the above table, the ‘Unallocated GCRF’. As you can see, after the first couple of years, this percentage matches and then outweighs that which has been allocated. Here it is, in bar chart form, from an RCUK slide:
So there is still time to influence your own area. Lobby your Research Council. Get involved: volunteer to take part in working groups, strategic committees, workshops. Remember the 10%: there is a lot of funding at stake here.
- Impact is crucial. That’s probably unsurprising, given the remit of the GCRF, but don’t take it for granted. It has to be written right through your project, and you should take on board DFID’s Research Uptake Guidance.
- Remember the policy framework. As I said in the introduction, the GCRF comes from the international development budget, and as such should be seen as aid. Thus, you need to be mindful of the policy framework which surrounds this, and try and set your project within the context of the UK aid strategy and UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
We had a broad meeting to explain the GCRF to all staff earlier this month, and it was also an opportunity to network and to hear from a number of colleagues who had potential projects. Contact me if you would like the slides from this event.
Following on from that we will:
- Develop a comprehensive database of all those with an interest in GCRF research, based on the delegate list from the event, but also from our knowledge and understanding of our strengths across all of our disciplines. Contact me if you would like to be included in this list.
- Run future workshops around the specific themes. Further to this, we will hold workshops in 2016-17 around specific themes, to share knowledge, contacts and potential projects. Contact me if you want to be kept updated.
- Work with International Partnerships to identify collaborators. IP has a list of all the universities around the world with which Kent has memoranda of understanding, or more informal links, here.
- Work with Eastern ARC colleagues to pool our expertise. The Eastern ARC is a crucial element in our preparations, and will allow those at Kent, Essex and UEA in complementary disciplines to collaborate. The first sandpit around GCRF will be held in September. Contact me for more details.
- Provide seedcorn funding to work with overseas collaborators. The PVC Research & Innovation recognises the importance of the Fund, as well as the tight turn around for many of the calls, and the expense incurred in collaborating. To offset these, he has agreed to open up his EU Partnership Fund to those applying for the GCRF. Click here for more detail.