Africa: UK's Newton Research Fund Aims to 'End Need for Aid'

The Newton Fund launched by the UK government on 9 April aims to 'end the need for aid' in 15 countries by fostering ties between researchers in developing countries and the United Kingdom that will boost their economic development.

The £375 million (around US$629 million) fund is led by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) using money allocated from the UK aid budget over the next five years.

A BIS spokesperson says the fund "will use our joint strengths in scientific research to promote development across the world and build long-term collaborations with countries that will produce leading innovations in the future".

"Ultimately, we're ending the need for aid by creating jobs and unlocking potential," the spokesperson adds.

The fund is designed to: increase research capacity through exchange programmes and by establishing joint research centres; encouraging research collaboration on development topics; and helping to translate research findings through innovation partnerships.

Applicants will have to show how their project will alleviate poverty by addressing development priorities.

The priorities will be decided on a case-by-case basis by a core group of UK delivery partners who will allocate funds, including the British Council, the UK research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the Met Office. The Department for International Development will also play a role in top-level decision-making, with its chief scientific advisor sitting on the fund's governance board.

Fifteen countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America whose level of development was deemed sufficient to maximise the benefits from research and development capacity building will be eligible to access the pot. These are: Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

Chile is the first country to be invited to submit proposals through the fund. Two competitions are now open: a grant for academic exchange to strengthen international research networks and a joint research grant for cutting-edge research and innovation processes.

Brazil and China have signed agreements with the UK government to match any funds received through the initiative.

Higher education is a huge economic driver and so it is "fantastic" that developing countries will receive support in this sector, says Vivienne Stern, director of UK Higher Education International Unit, which represents the sector internationally.

Focusing on middle-income countries that already have functioning science systems in place could see huge rewards for both countries involved in any partnership, she tells SciDev.Net. This is because the 15 nations have the means to participate as equal partners, she says, and have specialist knowledge acquired through dealing with their own specific development challenges.

"It's not a one-way flow with [the UK] universities telling countries how to do things," she says. "We think that if you create connections in regions where research capacity is already growing, the UK will gain from that."

But details of how the scheme will work remain unclear, Stern says, adding that discussions between countries involved and delivery partners need to "get a move on" if researchers, both in the United Kingdom and the developing world, are to benefit from the fund, given that potentially disruptive UK elections are being held next year.

"My concern is that with an election coming up, if details come out late or in a hurry, we may lose a great opportunity to make the best use of it," she says.

Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement, an NGO that campaigns against poverty and inequality, is also concerned about what he says is the fund's focus on advancing the United Kingdom's own interests through development.

"It is extremely problematic because the whole purpose of aid is about your priority of alleviating poverty, so to bring in another factor is a dilution of that primary responsibility," he tells SciDev.Net.

"Very often those two goals are in contradiction, so you have to choose which side to take."

Link to fund

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