Expanding horizons: what’s next for ODA-funded research?

On the blog today Sophie Lowry from the Strategic Research Initiatives Team talks us through the international development research funding landscape.

A few years ago, it was likely that only researchers who had a specialism in development studies or a similar discipline would recognise the term Official Development Assistance, or ODA.  However, with the advent of large funding streams, such as the Newton Fund and the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), being offered by funders familiar to the majority of the university sector, the term is becoming increasingly recognisable across the academic research community.

In the spotlight

independent commission for aid impact
The ICAI scrutinises all UK aid spending

Because these funds are subject to the same rigorous evaluation as other ODA funds, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) completed a rapid review of the GCRF back in September 2017. ICAI is the organisation that is responsible for ensuring all UK aid is spent effectively, no matter which UK government department is spending the money. This review welcomed the GCRF’s significant increase in the UK’s contribution to development-oriented research but found there were challenges at the strategic level, suggesting that the GCRF portfolio could be spread too thinly to achieve the transformational impact on sustainable global development (one of the GCRF’s stated aims). The report made four recommendations:

  1. To increase its prospects of achieving transformative research impact, the GCRF should develop a more deliberate strategy that encourages a concentration of research portfolios around high-priority global development challenges, with a stronger orientation towards development impact.
  2. The GCRF should develop clearer priorities and approaches to partnering with research institutions in the Global South.
  3. BEIS should develop a results framework for assessing the overall performance, impact and value for money of the GCRF portfolio, drawing on DFID’s guidelines on value for money in research and evidence programming.
  4. With the increase in investment in development research across the UK government, the responsible departments should put in place a standing coordination body to clarify roles and responsibilities, avoid duplication and overlap, and facilitate the exchange of learning.

As is common practice with these sort of reviews, HM Government issued a response to the report in October 2017.  In its response, Government partially accepted Recommendation 1 and fully accepted the remaining three recommendations.  Perhaps one of the most obvious ways in which we have seen the recommendations implemented is through the establishment of a coordination body across UK government departments spending aid money.  The “Strategic Coherence for ODA-funded Research (SCOR) Board” is chaired by Professor Peter Piot, the director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and will look to ensure that the impacts from this large amount of funding (£450m of the UK aid budget is allocated for research annually) are maximised across all the relevant actors. The SCOR Board, which currently includes representatives from DFID, BEIS, UK Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), URKI and the Wellcome Trust, also acts as the governing board for the recently rebranded UK Collaborative on Development Research (UKCDR).

What is the UKCDR?

The UKCDR (previously known as the UK Collaborative on Development Science, UKCDS) is a group of 14 UK governmental departments and research funders working in international development. As part of its work, the UKCDR publicises relevant funding opportunities on its website as well as maintains a wide-ranging library of resources for researchers working in this space.

UN sustainable development goals
All ODA-funded research activity is expected to address these Sustainable Development Goals

I attended the UKCDR launch this past June to find out a bit more about this changing landscape. UKCDR has four key strategic 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 producing a ‘collective voice to shape policy’. It is clear that UKCDR is an important player in this agenda, bringing together all the relevant high-level stakeholders to discuss sharing best practice. It was also evident that the coherence agenda across the various government departments allocating ODA funding is indeed, excuse the pun, coming together. For instance, it was highlighted that colleagues from DFID have been providing assistance to UKRI in its ongoing review of the full proposals submitted under its Interdisciplinary Research Hubs call.   We can also expect that other learning from DFID might make its way into these ODA funding calls – these may include cross-cutting themes such as gender equality, safeguarding, the ‘Leave No One Behind’ agenda, transparency and robust scrutiny of programme activity.

So I think it’s safe to say that the international development research funding landscape will continue to develop and consolidate learning over the coming months.  If you want to learn a bit more about what sorts of opportunities ODA funding may offer your research, the RSO has recently put together a brief overview of some of the non-GCRF ODA-funding streams available. These funding streams offer a wide range of opportunities from those targeting tackling AMR to a funding programme aimed at protecting biodiversity to another that funds efforts to keep cultural heritage sites and objects safe.

Sophie Lowry is a Strategic Research Executive in the Research Support Office’s Strategic Research Initiatives Team.

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