12 June 2019

Professor Peter Piot and Dr Marta Tufet outline how investments in international development research have transformed lives throughout history

Over the last 50 years, remarkable advances have made life better for billions of people. Since the 1990s, the world has managed to more than halve the number of child deaths and people living in extreme poverty. Global development has supported people to provide for themselves and their families, created decent opportunities and raised standards of living, and promoted models of development rather than dependence. The progress we have made is linked to economic development, but is also due in great part to science, innovation and research.

It is sometimes easy to forget the contribution of research in transforming our lives today. Vaccines have eradicated smallpox in humans and the deadly rinderpest virus in livestock, and are close to eradicating Polio. Breeding of high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat led to the green revolution that transformed food security in South Asia, saving billions from starvation. The advent of the Internet has brought access to knowledge and information to the most remote corners of the globe.

UK universities and research institutions have contributed significantly to these developments through a long tradition of outstanding work for and with developing countries, supported by UK research councils and government departments, alongside other donors.

For example, when an outbreak of Ebola struck north-eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team, a partnership between PHE and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine funded by UK aid, saw scientists and clinical researchers deployed alongside doctors and emergency teams to support the response to the outbreak. Likewise, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Department for International Development released rapid funding to support research alongside the response on the ground.

Today, the DRC is battling a tenth outbreak of the virus, in an increasingly complex context of armed conflict and recent attacks on treatment centres. Challenging climates such as this, demonstrate the importance of continuing to embed social science and research in response efforts, not only to track, prevent and control an infection, but also to inform how respondents engage with affected communities when tackling ongoing and future outbreaks.

Investing in innovation has also lead to creative uses of available resources to deliver better and more economical services. For example, mobile and satellite connectivity has been used to link patients in remote villages to urban doctors, and 3D printers have offered the possibility of designing and producing low-cost prosthetics. Conversely, opportunistic fixes developed to solve unmet needs in low-cost settings can be adapted to bring enterprising solutions back to the developed world through ‘reverse innovation’.

However, although research, economic growth and sound policies have made the world by many measures more safe and prosperous than at any moment in human history, we live in a time where the global order is rapidly changing. Major development, demographic and environmental transitions are bringing new challenges. Progress to date is threatened by ever more complex and interlinked problems, such as overpopulation, climate change and conflict and fragility.

The modern challenges we face are interconnected; solutions will only be found if we bring together research teams of scientists, engineers, clinicians, economists, historians, and anthropologists; each of which can integrate different concepts, tools and perspectives. And as the Ebola and Zika outbreaks have laid bare, modern threats do not respect country borders. We must view climate change as a national security issue as much as a global development challenge. In a globalised world, we are just as vulnerable as the most vulnerable population. Even if in the UK these new challenges may seem a world away, tackling them is in our interest.

We believe that a greater investment in international development research is essential to mitigate these threats – both at home and overseas – and to prevent us from sliding backwards. Research can inform action and help combat problems that affect us all; from promoting sustainable agriculture and food security, advancing gender equality, or improving health and nutrition, to mitigating risks of climate change, increasing our resilience in the face of disasters, or developing more inclusive societies. Ultimately, research and innovation could boost collaboration between emerging and developed economies, enabling us to foster sustainable solutions that benefit everyone.

Recognising the importance of research funding, and the need for greater coherence following the redistribution of the UK aid spend across government departments in 2015, the HMG Strategic Coherence for ODA-funded Research (SCOR) Board was created in 2017.  Bringing together major funders of UK research, SCOR provides a united voice of leadership to the international development research community and strengthens the UK’s position to ensure research is directed where it can have greatest impact.

With the Paris Agreement charting a new course in the global climate effort set to start in 2020 and the UN Global Goals aiming to reach ambitious targets by 2030, a spotlight is shining on the international community to come up with new and innovative solutions. By making a resolute commitment to international development research, the UK will maintain its standing as a key player on the global playing field and contribute to solving global challenges of the future – while, importantly, safeguarding our national security and bringing essential knowledge and benefits back to the UK at the same time.

Professor Peter Piot is the Director of the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, Dr Marta Tufet is the Executive Director of UKCDR. 

This thought piece is part of a series highlighting the transformational effect that increasing the UK's R&D intensity could have on discovery, quality of life, local regions and more. You can follow the series on our website or through Twitter, using #CaSEforresearch.  

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