Britain’s ‘brutal’ cuts to overseas aid put African science projects in peril.
Lifesaving research on fighting drought and climate change at risk after snap decision to halt crucial funding.
For two years, the Rwandan-born scientist Anita Etale has been leading efforts to develop cheap methods to clean contaminated water supplies, a widespread problem in Africa.
Based at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa, Etale had a £300,000 grant from Britain’s Royal Society in 2019 to build a team of researchers, who went on to develop cleaning filters using maize and sugarcane stubble. “Finding cheap source materials is crucial to make affordable filters,” Etale said
They published several papers about the technology and were preparing to make prototype filters with a further £450,000 pledged by the Royal Society. But two weeks ago, Etale was told abruptly that all future funding had been cancelled. “My reaction was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal,” Etale told the Observer.
Nor was she alone. A host of other researchers working in Africa – on projects aimed at helping the continent battle the climate emergency, develop renewable energy sources and fight biodiversity loss – were also told, without warning, that their promised funding had been cancelled. This was a direct result of Britain’s decision this month to slash overseas aid, leading to a 70% cut in foreign research grants provided by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and distributed by the Royal Society. One of the first victims was the society’s Future Leaders – African Independent Research (Flair) scheme, which funds scientists like Etale.
The funding cutback has shocked scientists across Africa and dismayed Royal Society officials. “The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal,” said Richard Catlow, the society’s foreign secretary. “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.”
The business department’s abrupt action means that Flair fellows – who were expecting three years of support – will have their funding halted with only two weeks’ notice, obliging the Royal Society to use its own funds to pay for another three months to soften the blow.
The impact of cuts was also highlighted by Gift Mehlana of Midlands State University in Gweru, Zimbabwe. Flair funds had allowed him to find promising ways to exploit porous materials which could absorb carbon dioxide from the air and help convert it into formic acid. Mehlana and his colleagues hoped this would help to provide developing nations with new, clean sources of fuel and chemicals while also tackling global heating.
“We were beginning to see light. Then we were told there would be no more money and our dreams were shattered,” said Mehlana.
“There are very few sources for funding research in Africa, and this scheme not only provided funds but also allowed us to link up with researchers in Britain,” he told the Observer. Now he and his colleagues are struggling to continue. “At best, our work will be slowed down significantly – and that is serious. Time is the one thing we don’t have when it comes to climate change,” he added.
Researchers also point to growing Chinese influence in Africa and warn that when scientists seek funds for promising research in future they will remember Britain’s behaviour and look elsewhere for international collaborators, a point stressed by Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith.
The cuts “will be noted by other science powers seeking to reinforce their research relationship with sub-Saharan Africa”, Smith argued in a letter to Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary.
For its part, the BEIS said the UK remained a world-leading aid donor. “This year alone, we will spend more than £10bn to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight Covid and improve global health, and we are working with our delivery partners, including UK Research and Innovation, to implement a new research and development settlement for 2021/22,” said a spokesman.
However, researchers point out that the population of Africa is expected to double by 2050, growing faster than on any other continent, while some of the worst impacts of climate change will be felt there – from droughts to heatwaves and intense storms.
One scientist directly involved in this work is Chris Trisos, at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Armed with a Flair grant, his team has developed ways to track how climate change will affect different species each year for the rest of this century. Results were published in the journal Nature.
“We were about to start a new project to forecast how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants,” Trisos said. “In Africa, 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. We were going to study that. Then our grant was axed. I felt it like a physical blow when I was told. My group’s future now looks very uncertain.”
The cuts could have implications for the whole world, said Etale. “I am trying to find ways to provide clean drinking water for people because that is basic requirement of life. And if people cannot get that, then don’t be surprised when you see refugees and migrants arriving on your shores.”
28 March 2021