Global Challenges Research Fund: What is Happening Now?

The chances are you have heard of the Global Challenges Research Fund. It has even had its first Daily Mail headline so clearly it has achieved a certain level of establishment. So what is it, what do you need to know and how do you get awards?

It’s a £1.5bn, 5 year strategy for development focussed research. It was first announced in November 2015 as part of the Government’s aid strategy ‘Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest’. This announcement has subsequently catalysed into a steady stream of research funding since June 2016, which is administered on behalf of the Department of Business, Enterprise, Innovation and Science (BEIS) by the Research Councils (RCUK) and the Academies.

In essence, GCRF is about identifying and understanding real, development challenges faced by low and middle-income countries (LMICs) and, by working in equitable partnership with LMICs, finding solutions to those challenges. These challenges generally align to one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals, and RCUK has itself identified a number of challenge areas that it consider UK academia most able to support.

Given that this money forms a significant chunk of the national aid budget, all investment in research must be Official Development Assistance compliant (ODA), this is about ensuring that the work undertaken is for the ‘economic and welfare benefit of a Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Country’. This can be most obviously evidenced through the Case for Support and vitally, the Impact Pathways statements in proposals. In the early days of this funding, we used to see generic ‘South East Asia’ or ‘Sub Saharan Africa’ type references but ODA compliance requires country specificity.

Partnership with actors in LMICs is another vital ingredient for success. Early mistakes in proposals included assumptions about their being ‘gaps’ that UK academia could simply fill with knowledge or best practice almost irrespective of their political, social or cultural relevance to the country of focus. In reality, of course, gaps rarely exist in society and understanding the local operating environment is a critical first step to knowing what can most usefully be done. The partners need to be tangibly informing the research undertaken and the activities to be delivered within their own context. Proposals need to clearly signal the depth of this collaboration and the ways in which in-country partners are informing the shape of the project.

Interdisciplinarity is often central to these calls and it is important to respect the disciplinary remits of any Research Councils who are co-financing a call. This stems from the recognition that the kind of challenges addressed through this funding are highly complex and often systemic in nature. To find solutions will require consideration of multiple different aspects of the challenge and true interdisciplinarity offers a multifaceted lens.

Of course, this is still Research Council funding so the standards of excellence applied to all their funding remains. However, whilst this is a complex funding space it does offer real opportunity for research to change the lives of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people.

Catherine Burns is Head of Strategic Research Development at the Research Support Office, University of Edinburgh.

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