From David Maughan Brown in York: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’.  In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.  ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums. 

Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’ [1] from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned.   A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled.  She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’   Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.

Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants.  ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’  When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told.  My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’  So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources.  Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa. 

But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning.  The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected.   Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant.   Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions.   The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low.   The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded.  The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable.   But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?

The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal.  We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations.  The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’  No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/28/britains-brutal-cuts-to-overseas-aid-put-african-science-projects-in-peril

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Wish fulfilment’?

November 18th

There are many reasons for those of us who have retired from the business of university management to be grateful no longer to have to worry about how best to steer our universities through whatever rough seas the shifting winds of politics and economics put in their way.   As I’ve said in previous entries, I don’t envy today’s Vice Chancellors having to contend with the current pandemic and its future repercussions on top of the perennial problem of transient cabinet ministers intent on to leaving their mark on the system before they move on to a more significant portfolio.   But recent events have made me particularly pleased no longer to be implicated in any way in a global academic research system which is, in one aspect at least, unforgivably wasteful and exploitative, and is arguably profoundly immoral.   

Where the UK is concerned, we still have one of the most productive and highly regarded university systems in the world, although there is no question that Brexit is bound to wreak very serious, and possibly irreparable, damage on it.  An impressive array of outstanding research, disproportionate to the size our system, still comes out of our universities, but it does so at incalculable cost.  Most of that cost is entirely hidden, both at the national and individual institutional levels.   The figures for the monies distributed by the six UK Research Councils (see the table from the THES above) amounted in 2017-18 to rather under £1.2bn; a roughly equivalent amount will have been distributed to Higher Education on the basis of the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF).   That is the visible cost where the Research Councils are concerned.   Some idea of the invisible cost, literally invisible, is arrived at by the simple expedient of subtracting the number of successful grants, 1,793, from the number of applications, 6,959.   So 5,226 bids that will each have taken literally hundreds of hours to put together, and will have carried the hopes, and sometimes the livelihoods, of their authors with them, have all been an abject waste of time and talent.   ‘Livelihoods’ because far too many researchers around the world are obliged to live a frighteningly precarious existence from one successful funding grant to the next.   Much of the cost is unquantifiable as it relates to mental health, wellbeing and general quality of life.

That, if course, is only half of the problem where government funding of universities in UK is concerned.    The other half lies with the countless more hours that have to be spent preparing for the regular cycle of REF evaluations; hours spent administering and writing about research rather than doing it.  And then there are all the other non-governmental funding bodies that, to their great credit, fund academic research, but in the process compound the problem where the wholly unproductive time and energy expended on unsuccessful funding bids is concerned.   This is often time and energy expended by many of the ablest men and women in the country that could have been spent far more productively.

Why write about this right now?  Because over the past nine months I have spent a significant amount of time painstakingly proofreading and commenting on an excellent collaborative research bid being produced by a group of researchers from, among others, Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose principal investigator was from the University of Cape Town.  The proposal to one of the major medical research funding bodies in the United States was for the funding of the evaluation of a potentially really important behavioural intervention designed to try to address the significant number of young men in the Western Cape (and, ultimately, elsewhere) who test positive for HIV but don’t then move to treatment.   The intervention involves a short video to be used when they are being counselled on first receipt of their HIV-positive result.  The video, whose production was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, features brief interviews with HIV positive men on antiretroviral treatment trying to address stigma and fears about antiretrovirals by talking about the normality of the lives they are able to lead.  

The bid was not funded at initial submission, but the reviews were largely very positive, detailed comments were received from the reviewers, and the researchers were invited to resubmit.  A huge amount of work went into making sure all the comments were addressed and the bid was duly resubmitted. The devastating news came through on Tuesday that the resubmission had been rejected without further review.  No reasons given; apparently no appeal possible; literally hundreds and hundreds of hours wasted, not just the time of those preparing the bid but also that of the initial reviewers.   The funding body would have been perfectly within its rights to change its funding policies in the interim to focus, for example, on Coronavirus instead of HIV/AIDS, but if that is what has happened it is wholly indefensible for them not to have communicated that to researchers whom they had invited to resubmit a bid on HIV.

A better way needs to be found globally for funding academic research, some way that does not result in the livelihoods and wellbeing of academic researchers becoming collateral damage, and so much of the time and energy of some of our ablest minds being  entirely wasted.