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Global challenges fund set to respond quickly to crises

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has published its strategy for the Global Challenges Research Fund.

The strategy, published on 30 June, sets out how the fund will boost research to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals and respond quickly to emergencies.

The GCRF was launched in 2016 and will invest £1.5 billion between 2016 and 2021 on collaborative research and innovation through UK universities and research organisations.

The GCRF’s delivery partners—the UK’s research councils, national academies and the UK Space Agency—worked together to create the strategy in order to ensure coherence across the fund, value for money and to maximise impact.

The department announced the creation of a strategic advisory group for the delivery partners, which will create programmes that respond rapidly to emergencies where there is urgent research need. It will also promote challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, including the participation of researchers who may not previously have considered the applicability of their work to development issues. It also aims to strengthen capacity for research in the UK and developing countries through partnerships.

While not a requirement, the GCRF may support bilateral and multilateral programmes with partners in other countries, but these must not duplicate activities supported under the Newton Fund, according to the strategy document.

The plans will require researchers from across the arts and humanities, social sciences, medical sciences, natural sciences and engineering to work across disciplines and in partnership with colleagues in developing countries to formulate approaches and practical solutions to global development problems that are “fit for purpose”.

The GCRF forms part of the official development assistance research and innovation funding from BEIS. The UK has maintained its spending on ODA at 0.7 per cent of gross national income.

The delivery partners will also work with other major funders of ODA research, including the Department for International Development to ensure “complementarity, sharing of best practice and value for money”.

BEIS also published its ODA statement of intent on 30 June, which said that in order to maximise the impact of ODA research and innovation investments, the UK would focus resources on addressing practical development problems where there is a “clear pathway to impact”. This means that all the research and innovation funded will have the potential to have practical benefits, the department said.

The objectives for achieving this are: partnering with developing countries to use research and innovation to solve specific development challenges; working with developing countries and developed countries to use research to solve global development challenges; and using dedicated funding to focus part of the UK’s research system on global development challenges where the UK can make a significant impact.

The GCRF will focus on challenges that are manifest within countries on the OECD Development Assistance Committee list but the strategy does not have an explicit priority list of countries, as similar challenges can affect multiple countries.

According to the strategy, the GCRF will support a “diverse but balanced portfolio of activities” with the common feature that they all in some way “address the research agenda for enabling change and the SDGs, and, reflecting the BEIS ODA statement of intent, maximise the practical impact of research and innovation to improve the lives and opportunities of the global poor”.

Engagement with the Global South will help to ensure that the research and proposed impact match local needs and sensitivities, the strategy said. Successful proposals will need to demonstrate that they address the multiple dimensions of sustainability in an integrated way.


UK > Politics > Northern Ireland


Cross-border food research project launched

Research institutions in Northern Ireland have been invited to apply for funding for joint projects with the Republic of Ireland that benefit the local farming and food industry.

The Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland announced on 30 June that—having identified a number of topics of shared strategic relevance— it had agreed to fund the participation of researchers based in Northern Ireland in successful project applications to Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s 2017 competitive call.

DAERA’s departmental science adviser Alistair Carson said that addressing common issues with a collaborative approach had many benefits, including the leverage of additional research capacity and the expertise to meet the needs of the local agri-food industry.

“This funding to local scientists, technologists and advisers will play an essential part in assisting Northern Ireland's farmers who face the challenges of increasingly competitive agri-food and forestry sectors. Sharing both knowledge and resources through collaboration enhances both the quality of research, and the value derived from DAERA funding,” he said.


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UK > Research Councils


Councils admit diversity data ‘limited in accuracy’

Data collected by the UK research councils on the gender and ethnicity of applicants and award recipients is based on what people choose to disclose and is therefore limited in its accuracy, Research Councils UK has acknowledged.

RCUK's third annual update of diversity data sets, published on 27 June, includes the categories “unknown” and “not disclosed” for the first time. Unknown refers to instances where individuals have not updated their details and therefore the research councils has received no usable response, while “not disclosed” refers to individuals who have consciously chosen not to disclose their information. 

The research councils aim to identify specific areas of concern for action by publishing data on gender, age, disability status and ethnicity and monitoring the data at a more in-depth level, RCUK said. This forms part of RCUK’s action plan to tackle equality, diversity and inclusion issues in research and “drive cultural change” in the research sector.

The data was gathered from the research councils' online application system, Je-S, and in 2015-16 was extended to include principal investigator, co-investigator and fellowship awards and success rate by gender, age and ethnicity.

Disability data was only published for students, as the numbers disclosing a disability are small in the other data sets, coupled with a significant number choosing not to disclose or listed as unknown, RCUK said.

The data showed that applicants declaring themselves as “Asian/Black/Chinese/Mixed/Other” had an increased success rate for winning principal investigator grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2015-16. This increased from 26.3 per cent in 2014-15 to 44.4 per cent the following year, but the data showed that a significant number did not disclose their ethnicity, which “makes comparisons difficult”.

A similar problem occurred at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, where an equal number of applicants chose not to disclose their ethnicity as describe themselves as Asian/black/Chinese/mixed/other. At the BBSRC, success rates for applications categorising themselves in those groups were 6 per cent lower than for white applicants.

Figures for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council show that its academic population was made up of 76 per cent identifying as white, 7 per cent unknown and black and minority ethnic at 6 per cent. The gender balance was particularly poor at the EPSRC with 17 per cent women and 83 per cent men.

The Economics and Social Research Council said it was also aware of an issue with disclosure rates and said it would “take steps” to ensure applicants filled in the data. Success rates for those identifying as BME remained lower than for white academics with that research council.

The Medical Research Council showed a trend for increasing BME grant applications and the success rates for BME co-investigators were closely comparable to other groups, although there continues to be a difference for principal investigators.

Application rates at the Natural Environment Research Council show a steady increase in the numbers of applicants declaring their ethnicity as Asian/black/Chinese/mixed/other, up from 3.5 per cent in 2011-12 to 6.9 per cent in 2015-16. However, the numbers remain small and that continues to hamper any meaningful analysis of success rates, RCUK said.

At the Science and Technology Facilities Council, there was an increase in the percentage of applications from the BME category although the success rate was similar to the previous year.

The data also showed that in 2015-16, no fellowship awards were made to BME applicants at the AHRC, the BBSRC, NERC and STFC.


ESRC announces large grant programme winners

The Economic and Social Research Council has named the recipients of more than £10 million for multidisciplinary research involving its core areas of economics and social science.

The ESRC revealed the five successful applicants to its Large Grants competition, which it says aims to take forward “an ambitious research agenda with the potential to make significant economic or societal impact”, on 29 June.

The winning projects also had to show strong commitment to the career development of researchers, particularly at an early-career stage, and involve potential users of research.

The five successful projects are:

  • Between Two Unions: The constitutional future of the Islands after Brexit, a project to examine institutional change in real time and how Brexit will impact on constitutional dynamics in the UK, led by Michael Keating at the University of Aberdeen.
  • Sustainable Care: Connecting people and systems, in which Sue Yeandle at the University of Sheffield will investigate how social care arrangements, deemed to be 'in crisis', can be made sustainable.
  • Advancing Microdata Models and Methods in which Andrew Chesher and his team at the Institute for Fiscal Studies will analyse people’s behaviour and the influences on it.
  • Network for Integrated Behavioural Science: The science of consumer behaviour, a project led by Chris Starmer of the University of Nottingham.
  • Analysing Multi-dimensional and Multi-scale Inequalities in Scottish Society, a study led by Susan McVie at the University of Edinburgh. 

ESRC chief executive Jane Elliott said that the UK was entering a period of extensive negotiations on Brexit and still needed to address the pressures on health and social care systems and continued inequalities across the country. “These projects are all directly relevant to the challenges ahead and demonstrate the important contribution that social science can make to society and the individuals within it.” 


UK > Innovation


Transparency of drug industry payments improves

Pharmaceutical companies paid £454.5 million to healthcare professionals and organisations in the UK in 2016, an increase of 25 per cent compared with 2015, the industry trade association has said.

The rise was driven by a 33 per cent rise in payments relating to R&D since 2015, from £254m in 2015 to £338m in 2016.

Overall, 74 per cent of payments to healthcare professionals and organisations in 2016 were related to R&D, according to data published on 30 June by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

The remaining payments were made for items such as travel and accommodation, fees for consultancy and sponsorship agreements.

The data was obtained through Disclosure UK, a searchable database published on the ABPI's website that details payments and benefits in kind made to UK healthcare professionals by pharmaceutical companies.

The ABPI said that in 2016 there was a significant increase in healthcare professionals disclosing their partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry.

An estimated 65 per cent of healthcare professionals that collaborated with industry last year have given permission to publish details of these partnership, a 10 percentage-point increase on the 55 per cent who consented to release this information for 2015, it said.

Mike Thompson, chief executive for the ABPI, said that the change in behaviour during the past year “should be applauded”.

“Increasingly doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are doing the right thing in disclosing their collaborations with industry. I am by no means complacent however—we can and we should be achieving greater transparency,” Thompson said. The ABPI was committed to achieving a 100 per cent consent rate, he said.

“The industry's commitment to R&D in order to bring the newest, most effective medicines to patients in this country is also indicated in these figures today,” Thompson said.


Europe > Ireland


Researchers fear Brexit will damage Irish research

Researchers on the island of Ireland have expressed their concerns that Brexit has the potential to damage research on both sides of the border, with many academics in Northern Ireland saying they view it as a disaster.

A minority of researchers said they considered the impact of Brexit would be benign or potentially positive and there is a great deal of uncertainty, according to a survey of academics in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland conducted by the Royal Irish Academy.

The academy held meetings in Dublin on 27 June and in Belfast on 29 June to discuss the preliminary findings of the survey, which has been conducted over the past three months.

Data gathering from bodies such as the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education and Skills continues and meetings with stakeholders to discuss “key risks” will inform the final report, John Maguire, a senior programme manager at the academy, said. “We will work towards the report being out in September,” he said. “It is going to identify the main risks to the higher-education sectors in Ireland and Northern Ireland and look at potential benefits.”

The academy moved to set up the major cross-border assessment in response to widespread nervousness among researchers. It is being co-chaired by Jane Ohlmeyer, chairwoman of the Irish Research Council and a historian of Irish and British history, and Gerry McKenna, medical researcher and former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster.

Areas of concern that emerged as the survey began related to Irish-UK research collaborations, the free movement of students and academics between institutions and whether students in the south will have to pay increased fees if they want to study in Northern Ireland.

The 390 respondents represented a good balance between the north and south so the survey as it stands is “a very good snapshot of the community on Brexit”, says Maguire.

The survey results revealed fears about the impact of Brexit, with 66 per cent of those taking part believing it will have a negative impact on higher education on the island. This increases to 96 per cent for respondents from Northern Ireland alone.

A majority of respondents recognised the importance of collaboration between Ireland and the UK including the North and Brexit is expected to cause problems. A majority 77 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the view that Brexit would impact negatively on north-south collaboration. And 79 per cent agreed with the view that these collaborations, and those with the rest of the UK, were very important in the respondents’ academic or research fields.

Respondents in the south did see some positives however, including the potential to win more EU funding and to attract international students and academics to higher education institutions in the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit would have “a huge impact” on higher education on both sides of the border, Ohlmeyer said in a statement from the academy.

“Our taskforce is seeking to present possible solutions and opportunities to government for the myriad challenges that Brexit will pose to the academic community. This survey is the first step in this process and it highlights the key areas of concern for the higher education and research sector,” she said.


Ireland joins radio telescope collaboration

The Irish government has signed a funding agreement that sees the country join the international LOFAR radio telescope collaboration, one of the largest radio telescopes in the world.

An agreement was signed by John Halligan, junior minister for research, and Patrick Prendergast, provost of Trinity College Dublin, on 28 June allowing Ireland participate in the Low Frequency Array, a €150-million pan-European telescope consortium.

Funder Science Foundation Ireland has already provided €1.4 million to begin installing an Irish LOFAR node at Birr, County Offaly. The government will pay related fees that will see Ireland become a full member of the consortium.


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