SSD newsletter, May 2021: A message from Head of Division, Professor Dame Sarah Whatmore

professor sarah whatmore

When I last wrote to you in March, news of the extensive cuts to research funded through the UK’s Official Development Assistance budget had just been announced. Since then, we are learning more about how these cuts will impact projects funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (previously DFID) and the UKRI Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), although negotiations are still ongoing in several cases.

This has been especially painful at Oxford given our successes in these schemes across several divisions, with Social Sciences being particularly impacted as host and partner in important projects, some at relatively early stages of their work.

Cuts typically of up to 70% were imposed on a very short timescale and I want to thank PIs and departmental research support staff who have worked so hard, despite heavy hearts, with the University’s central Research Services to find ways to mitigate the worst of these cuts and the associated threat of potential redundancies by careful management of project budgets and timelines.

I also want to express my gratitude for the prompt response of the University’s Development team who have been working with some of the larger, worst affected projects to seek philanthropic funding to support planned activity. Nonetheless, the impact of these cuts is devastating for the research teams affected and the contributions these projects promised to make to improving the lives of people in the global south. These include such vital topics as improving water security; language development in children, and parents struggling during the pandemic to name just a few of the projects affected in our Division. Quite as serious is the impact of these cuts on sector confidence in the government’s commitment to the value of research in advancing its ‘global Britain’ agenda, to honouring its contracted research investments and to its promise to grow investment in research in the national interest.

Working closely with the PVC Research and the Vice-Chancellor, I have been actively engaging with networks in UKRI, Learned Societies and government departments to convey our dismay at the impact of these damaging cuts, culminating in the powerful letter from our Vice-Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University to the Daily Telegraph (behind the paywall), and from the Chancellor to the Financial Times (accessible with your University account).

In the tidal wave of justified complaint with which the cuts were greeted in the wider community, the Vice-Chancellors' letter gained some traction both in the media and in government. With the future funding for the much larger Horizon research programme still to be fully resolved, these efforts remain active and pressing. As we get a fuller picture of the impact of these cuts I intend, together with my opposite number in Cambridge, to follow up with a piece in the print media illustrating the quality and importance of the research which has been lost.

Despite this unhappy episode, our passionate belief in the power of research to make the world a better place is undiminished and I am confident that Oxford social sciences will continue to exemplify the University’s mission to conduct world-leading research and demonstrate its far-reaching benefits. The Division is rightly proud of the global reach of its research and teaching and will rise above the cuts and allied uncertainties about the substance of the government’s ‘global Britain’ agenda.