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Medical workers and COVID-19 patients at the Dr. Abelardo Santos Regional Hospital in Belem, Para state, Brazil

COVID-19 patients in Belem, Brazil: cuts to a UK research fund have affected a project tracking coronavirus variants in Brazil.Credit: Tarso Sarraf/AFP via Getty

Bitter and angry are the words that epidemiologist Oliver Pybus uses to describe his feelings when he opened an e-mail from his university’s research-services department this month. The e-mail told him that funding for one of his research projects will be cut by one-quarter. It was the second such notification he had received in 2021. The first listed a 70% cut to another project.

Pybus, who is at the University of Oxford, UK, is part of one of the world’s leading teams working on identifying and tracking new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The latest cut to his team’s funding will affect a surveillance project in Brazil, where COVID infections, some caused by fast-spreading variants, are surging. Both cuts are the result of reductions that the UK government made last year to its foreign-aid budget, some of which funds research.

“There can’t be many more important scientific projects today than this,” says Pybus. He and his team are tracking the genomic changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus and have so far identified significant variants of concern. “We have been working absolutely flat out for 14 months. Everyone is drained and exhausted. It makes me feel that has been unappreciated,” he says.

The reductions to the UK aid budget, also known as official development assistance (ODA), have hit more than 800 other research projects, affecting thousands of UK and overseas researchers. Since 2014, the government has channelled a portion of ODA funding to public science agencies to help researchers address pressing problems in the developing world, such as emerging infectious diseases, by building collaborations with researchers overseas. But in November, in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians slashed provisions for the ODA from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%. Many saw the move as controversial.

The cut left UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which oversees the main ODA research schemes and is the nation’s central research funder, with a shortfall. As a result, it has been unable to meet its existing commitments to universities that had already secured multi-year grants. More than 12,000 people have signed a petition to reverse the cut, which reduced ODA funding for 2021–22 to £125 million (US$174 million), £120 million less than they were expecting.

Shaky ground

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All this comes at an uncertain time for UK science. Earlier this year, universities questioned how the United Kingdom will pay its way into the European Commission’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. Because the country is no longer part of the European Union, it will need to pay £1 billion to £2 billion a year to be an ‘associate’ member of the fund, so that UK-based researchers can bid for grants. Rumours suggested that the money would come at the expense of the domestic science budget, raising hackles, until the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) — the ministry responsible for science — announced that it had found alternative funding. In response to the ODA cut, the BEIS says that the United Kingdom is still a world-leading aid donor and has spent £10 billion this year tackling poverty, climate change and COVID-19.

“The biggest concern at the moment is inconsistency, in that the government seems to be sending contradictory signals on an almost weekly basis,” says James Wilsdon, a science-policy researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK. That’s leading to a lack of confidence among researchers, he adds.

It’s not only the public purse that has been stretched by the pandemic. Restrictions on movement, as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, have left medical-research charities with a £300-million hole in their finances, according to the Association of Medical Research Charities. Many members, such as Cancer Research UK, have been unable to hold their usual fundraising activities or open their shops, leading to cuts in their funding of research.

And there will be more difficult decisions ahead, says Ottoline Leyser, the head of UKRI. In a blog in January, she said that this year “is likely to be particularly challenging” as the agency continues to fund COVID-19 projects, redistributes spending for projects delayed by COVID-19 and faces the reduction in ODA funding.

Emergency funds

In mid-March, UKRI began writing to universities that would be affected by the ODA cut to tell them about the shortfall. The letters ask institutions to reprofile, reduce or terminate the grants that had been won. Many are now scrambling to work out how to do this, and Pybus’s team is one of those affected. The University of Oxford has 18 awards affected, and administrators have applied the cut equally across grants, “with very significant impact on research and researchers, here and with our overseas partners”, according to a spokesperson for the institution. “Several of the affected grants involve COVID-19 research,” says the spokesperson, adding that previous ODA grants supported the development of the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.

At University College London (UCL), where 36 projects are affected and the cuts total £6.6 million, administrators have created a emergency global health research fund worth up £2 million to help alleviate some of the pressure on its scientists. David Price, the institution’s head of research, says that the cuts are unprecedented and that more could follow because the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) — which uses the ODA to fund global health research — has yet to announce how it will handle the fall in its ODA allocation. The NIHR declined Nature’s request for comment for this article, but in March said that it might need to reduce its ambitions and would prioritize existing projects for funding.

At UCL, developmental neurobiologist Nick Greene has had a global-health grant cut by 25%. The grant is jointly funded by several organizations hit by the aid reduction, including the NIHR. The trial, which was about to start in northern China in collaboration with Peking University in Beijing, will look at whether inositol supplements can prevent some neural-tube defects during pregnancy. It will be the precursor to a larger clinical trial and is the culmination of 20 years’ work, he says.

Greene now faces the prospect that the trial might not go ahead. If it does, it’s likely that the teams involved will cut the number of participants they recruit. “There is the stress of not knowing what the next step is,” he says.

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