The peril of double counting research and aid budgets is demonstrated by an almost 50% cut to the 2021–22 allocations to the United Kingdom’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). Major projects on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) must renegotiate funding or be cancelled; recent awards will be stopped before they’ve begun. The decision undermines the nation’s reputation and the objectives of aid and research.
In 2016, the UK Government masked cuts to research funding with its aid budget. The result was the £1.5-billion (US$2.1 billion) GCRF, budgeted both as 2% of the nation’s aid and as almost 4% of UK Research and Innovation funding. This unethical blurring concerned many within a wider politicization of aid funding (see go.nature.com/3fevfkc). Now, inevitably, the GCRF is hit by a decision to cut aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of the national income. Combined with the impacts of Brexit and COVID-19, this depletes next year’s aid by one-third (see go.nature.com/3fdbukj).
A proportion of the research budget should be dedicated to global challenges; this should not count against aid spending. Long-term planning for research ensures that aid is more effective. The framing of GCRF has often pushed UK researchers to think up ‘innovative’ initiatives, which in-country partners must implement. Effective aid does not reinvent the wheel; it harnesses local knowledge and tackles structural inequalities.