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GCRF: don’t judge a book by its cover (or title)

In 2016, the then-government introduced a new approach to funding science and research targeted at urgent problems being faced by people the world over: the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), which the MRC helps to deliver. Rachael Sara-Kennedy, Head of International Partnerships at Universities UK, says we must look beyond the face value of overseas research funding to see how it benefits us all.

The GCRF enables our universities and world-class research base to access resources drawn from the government’s overseas aid budget – the Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding to help fight global challenges. The fund represents a not insignificant slice of the government’s commitment to spend 0.7% GDP on overseas aid.

The GCRF may have been on your radar recently following news coverage calling into question the value of some of the projects funded. In these critiques, the underlying objectives and positive contributions these projects hope to make are largely overlooked. However, you only need to browse through the collection of ambitious projects that were funded through last year’s Research Council’s UK GCRF collective call to see their obvious value – not only in monetary terms, but in how they will enhance the lives of people across the world.

Let’s take one of the projects being led by King’s College London, which will look at improving pregnancy care across sub-Saharan Africa by focusing on three key complications in pregnancy. Why does this matter? Because it is estimated that around 50% of the 46,000 women and 2.5 million babies who die each year from these complications are based in Africa.

And while some projects may at first glance appear less overtly ‘ODA’ than others, as with many things in life, context is everything. Bangor University, for example, is leading a project on ‘Sustainable futures for the Costa Rica dairy sector’. This will not only build capacity in the agricultural sector of Costa Rica and neighbouring countries, but will also address a larger issue, one which affects the UK too: climate change.

The low productivity of pasture used for livestock in Central and South America is a major cause of deforestation, leading to substantial environmental effects such as air and water pollution, and increased greenhouse gas emissions. The impact of the project is thus potentially far more significant than the title might suggest.

Similarly, let’s look at the Loughborough University project addressing increases in energy consumption in countries such as India, which are densely populated and are seeing their already warm climate get hotter thanks to global warming. Why does it matter? Because air conditioning devices being used in much of India are not energy efficient, meaning they are bad for the environment and so bad for our planet. A project which looks at developing low cost and energy efficient devices that could be rolled out in India and other countries with similar climates isn’t just sensible – it’s an absolute necessity.

Granted, the GCRF might not be perfect, but we shouldn’t lose sight of (or belittle) the remarkable and innovative work being undertaken by UK researchers and their collaborators thanks to schemes like the Newton Fund and the GCRF.

These funds allow our researchers to tackle issues of global importance – and help address real barriers to global development that can sometimes seem intangible, such as gaps in knowledge, capability and capacity. From innovative ideas including developing biodegradable shopping bags from shrimp shells (yes, really!) and addressing waste management challenges in Egypt, to joining forces with South American colleagues to better understand the interrelationship between the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and climate change; these projects matter.

And if addressing barriers to global development, while building in-country capacity to reduce aid dependence in future, isn’t your idea of money well spent, then it’s worth bearing in mind that many outcomes of these projects will directly and indirectly benefit people all over the world, including the UK. After all, it’s called the Global Challenges Research Fund for a reason.

This article has been re-purposed from the Universities UK blog.

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