Professor Melissa Leach, Director, Institute of Development Studies, discusses why UK funded research is important for a successful COVID vaccine roll-out to the poorest and hardest to reach
Populations around the world are placing their hope in vaccines as a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but even if lower-income countries can get the doses they need, vaccinating the hardest to reach is a complex challenge that needs to be evidence-informed to be successful. With UK leadership and expertise in international development established over many years, vaccination is just one area of the pandemic where UK research has a key contribution to make. Worryingly, however, current and future international research is now under threat from Government plans to significantly reduce the aid budget.
In any country – whether the UK or Uganda – a successful vaccination programme requires more than the logistics of supply and distribution; many social factors such as cultural and religious sensitivities and levels of trust in governments and health providers need to be understood and addressed to ensure enough take-up the jab. In some of the poorest places in the world, such as those suffering from conflict or the informal housing or slum settlements where more than one billion people globally live, these factors are even more complex, making it crucial that they are included within research on how to achieve effective vaccination at scale. The eventual scale may be global, but one size will not fit all in getting there.
Experience from low-income settlements demonstrates that evidence is vital to understanding what works best, where, how and why. This includes identifying the mix of local health providers, places and people that local community members feel safe to receive a vaccine in and from, combatting misinformation, and building trust. Understanding local histories, politics and institutions is crucial to designing strategies that are sensitive, inclusive and therefore effective, to informing vital dialogue with communities. And to ensuring that vaccine roll-out is not a one-off achievement but will also strengthen health systems for the long-term.
Global vaccine roll-outs are just one example of where development research has impact, demonstrating powerfully how important it is that the UK government should continue its commitment. Last year, 9% of bilateral UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding was attributed to research. That is the equivalent of just 27p* in government spending per week, per person in the UK for a year. This is a relatively small amount that at IDS we have seen repeatedly make a huge difference. For example, UK ODA research funding has built the case for climate action, reduced the threat of malaria, increased tax revenues in countries such as Rwanda, and helped bring an end to the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak through preventing disease transmission.
UK Aid investment
UK Aid investment has played a central role in building the vital, and globally unique, UK leadership in transformative research. That leadership and expertise is a real UK success story, but it is under threat by the Government’s plan to break the promise made in the Conservative manifesto to keep 0.7% of gross national income spent on helping the world’s poorest. The proposal is to reduce spend to 0.5% of gross national income at a time when the national income is already shrinking. It will potentially wipe £4 billion from the annual UK aid budget. How aid cuts will be distributed and the proportion that will fall to research is not yet clear. But it is clear that any significant reduction to development research budgets will seriously damage the effectiveness of programmes as well as our reputation for world-leading science and research. Such a move threatens international research partnerships that once lost would take many years to re-build.
At risk is also the investment that has positively changed how research is done. The UK has recognised that the best evidence is found through research that is collaborative, through international and interdisciplinary partnerships (bringing together social science and humanities with natural and health sciences, private and public sector and local people) and engaged with policymakers and practitioners. The ability to undertake research in this way matters, and is something that DFID led the way on, supported by other funders including UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the British Academy.
As the world grapples with trying to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and begin the long road to social and economic recovery, we must not compromise the UK’s ability to do high quality, interdisciplinary research that can transform lives globally – including in the UK. With multiple urgent global challenges facing us, including climate change, now more than ever we need to invest in international research for better decision-making, informed by real-world experiences and complexities.
*2019 ODA stats show 9 percent of total bilateral aid was classified as spent on research – £953.4m (most of this BEIS/UKRI and DFID). Divided by UK population of 66.65 million, this represents £14.30 each, divided by 52 weeks = 27p per week per person. Note that research often spans multiple sector codes within the UK aid statistics and programmes involving research activities are not always coded as such, so it can be difficult to get an exact total.