This blog was written by Mel Knight, Interdisciplinary Research Development Manager in R&IS.

Over the past twelve months we have seen a surge in calls associated with the new £1.5 billion interdisciplinary funding stream called the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). Successful projects must be focused on the most pressing problems faced by developing countries and enable UK research to take a leading role in the development of solutions. This has inspired a new cohort of academicians to get involved in international development, often for the first time. So how might they do so in ways which maximise the chances of fulfilling the good intentions of the scheme’s founders? Here are several points that may be helpful to consider when approaching international partnerships during the planning stages of a GCRF project:

Take your time with interdisciplinary interactions

Solving grand challenges is cited as one of the chief reasons for pursuing interdisciplinary collaboration, as no one subject can tackle problems that at once appear huge, wicked, multifarious and daunting. Current schemes encourage the participation of a range of disciplines to answer specific development goals, a trend that is likely to grow with calls coming from the new UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) body rather than existing research councils. Scholars coming together can really test epistemologies, languages and the value of translational research but it all takes time to appreciate each other and work out the value of contributions to a given idea. The rhetoric of interdisciplinarity is well documented but it may be useful to seek tips from those currently tackling challenges and in the middle of projects at the moment. There are some useful resources from the Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme bringing environmental and social sciences together to ensure sustainable living spaces for all, although there will be many other programmes out there with equally valuable resources. In summary it takes longer to build partnerships of trust with those from other research fields and this should be factored into the design and implementation phases of the project.

Explore Responsible Research & Innovation (RRI)

RRI has gained currency in the European Commission to cover public engagement, the involvement of society within a project and the impacts of research on communities. At the heart, is the anticipation of the consequences emerging from our research endeavours. This is mirrored in guidelines from the Impact Initiative for International Research that encourages the involvement of those that are instrumental for change, even at the co-production level where stakeholders come together at the very beginning to jointly craft a research question and programme of work. The result should be stronger and more meaningful impact at the medium to longer term time scales. A key component of the GCRF is the requirement to be compliant with Official Development Assistance (ODA) and no group can ever be truly confident that research is meeting an in-country need, unless those responsible for change within countries are included in research activities. Genuine partnerships are critical to the success of applications and it may take a few years and pilot projects before they are robust enough for a GCRF award. Likewise a GCRF project should not be seen as the end goal and that provision is made for the sustainability of activities and partnerships within the Global South when funding ends.

Keeping safe and aware of legal obligations

It will be foolish not to acknowledge the great body of experience and expertise embedded within HEIs regarding working internationally. After all global development research is not a new phenomenon. However for those unfamiliar to working in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) there are a few things to consider. For those employed by a UK HEI but working outside of the UK for more than a few months, there are tax considerations and employment commitments that should be honoured in the host country. Of course this applies to post-doctoral researchers as well as investigators. Some thought is required as to who should actually recruit and employ members of the group and the UK is often not the best option within a GCRF project. Ad hoc payments to helpers and guides can also be problematic if they are for prolonged periods of time and can be difficult to audit once the project is complete. Shorter visits will also require consideration of visas, vaccinations, insurance and different working cultures. Luckily most HEIs have excellent services to help navigate through these issues if researchers seek them out.

As more projects are funded through the GCRF, there will be much to learn from experience. However, there is a wealth of knowledge already existing within universities, different faculties and in sponsors who have worked in the global south for a long time. This should be harnessed by anyone embarking on an international development journey with partners overseas. However success hinges on understanding what the primary purpose of the GCRF is and how it will affect those with whom we work.

This is, therefore, a challenging, but exciting moment for UK researchers. Using these funds wisely offers great rewards, but the task remains daunting. At Sheffield we have put together this brief guide as a means of getting going. Other resources include:

Making science work for development – Website with multiple resources and case studies around research in the context of international development

Observations and feedback to previous GCRF applicants – Pdf document from the research councils providing advice to future applicants

How to write a fundable proposal for the GCRF – Prof. Mark Reed’s online article


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