Strategies to increase funding for action-oriented research that helps make societies and economies more resilient, equitable and sustainable were the focus for the Second Global Forum of Funders, held online on April 26-28 (photo: Agência Brasil)

Funding agencies discuss how to create a science system that produces solutions to global problems

Strategies to increase funding for action-oriented research that helps make societies and economies more resilient, equitable and sustainable were the focus for the Second Global Forum of Funders, held online on April 26-28.

Funding agencies discuss how to create a science system that produces solutions to global problems

Strategies to increase funding for action-oriented research that helps make societies and economies more resilient, equitable and sustainable were the focus for the Second Global Forum of Funders, held online on April 26-28.


Strategies to increase funding for action-oriented research that helps make societies and economies more resilient, equitable and sustainable were the focus for the Second Global Forum of Funders, held online on April 26-28 (photo: Agência Brasil)


Agência FAPESP – The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare inequalities, vulnerabilities and above all the urgent need to accelerate social and economic transformations. The new reality also requires changes in the way science is conducted and funded worldwide, with more collaboration among countries and regions, interdisciplinarity, and support for research projects committed to the mission of making societies and economies more resilient, equitable and sustainable.

“Optimistically we can see that the inflection point induced by Covid creates an opportunity for accelerated progress on the many transformations needed toward sustainability. On the other hand, there are strong voices also shouting for a return to pre-Covid business as usual. (...) It’s time to do things differently. With imagination and collaboration we can make a difference and change the trajectory ahead of us,” said Peter Gluckman, President Elect of the International Science Council (ISC), in his opening address to the Second Global Forum of Funders

The online event, held on April 26-28, brought together leaders of research funding agencies, foundations, and development aid agencies across the globe, with FAPESP among them. Its aim was to discuss and present new strategies for the funding of research and the implementation of a scientific system geared to transforming through innovation and solving problems relating to global sustainability.

“When the 17 Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] were proposed [by the UN General Assembly in 2015], many said there were too many goals and targets to achieve, albeit voluntarily. Yet the urgency of achieving the SDGs has only increased. We can see this clearly in the climate issue. Agenda 2030, therefore, is no longer a matter of choice, but a direction the entire world has to follow. Research agencies and other science funders should lead the effort to have a greater impact and increase research collaboration in order to carry out this agenda. Time is no longer in our favor,” said Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a Patron of the ISC, which organized the event.

Robinson was UN Special Envoy on Climate Change in 2014-15, the period in which the SDGs were being drawn up as part of a UN-led effort to end poverty, protect the environment and ensure that people all over the world can enjoy peace and prosperity.

The event was an opportunity for leaders to find common ground on strategies for new models of research funding, review the main challenges, and reinforce the need for a system that permits more collaboration.

Ingrid Petersson, Director General of the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development (Formas), said one of the toughest problems to solve is the perception that research for innovation is valuable to enhance competitiveness and national prosperity rather than as a global public good.

Other participants pointed to a similar problem in respect of research collaboration to address the major global challenges. “Multilateral funding is still a small proportion of the existing science system budgets,” said Albert van Jaarsveld, CEO of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). “The focus is still mainly on national agendas and priorities, which is understandable, but if we asked funders how much of their budget is allocated to cooperation or multilateral coordination, many would be unable to answer, which shows it’s not a priority.”

Besides the changes in the global arena, new challenges that are arising and old ones that are intensifying include the systematic spread of disinformation, the rise of anti-scientism, the dangers of nationalism and the fragile state of the multilateral system, Gluckman added.

“Our main ambition must be to facilitate collaboration among science funders, and this requires the expansion of initiatives such as open data and open science. Many challenges still need to be tackled, however. Basic science guided by curiosity is of the utmost importance, as is its implementation, which should be the primary thrust for these changes to be feasible,” said Luiz Eugênio Mello, FAPESP’s Scientific Director.

Inequality of investment in science, technology and innovation

A survey presented on the second day of the event highlighted the inequality of investment in science, technology and innovation across country groups toward achieving the 17 SDGs.

Led by scientists at the University of Sussex and University College London (UCL) in the UK, in partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the survey showed that the countries that need least help to achieve the SDGs have so far accounted for 90% of SDG-related research. The countries that are behind in areas such as high-quality education, affordable clean energy and sustainable production and consumption, for example, produce less SDG-related research than the high-income and upper-middle income countries together. 

There are exceptions. Countries with major challenges are relatively specialized in research relating to SDGs 2 (zero hunger and sustainable agriculture), 3 (health and wellbeing) and 6 (clean water and sanitation), but not SDGs 4 (quality education), 7 (affordable and clean energy), 12 (responsible consumption and production) or 13 (climate action).

According to Joanna Chataway, Head of UCL’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, the worst misalignment is that 50% of the research indexed by Web of Science is unrelated to the issues addressed in the SDGs. The findings are preliminary, Chataway stressed. A full report will be published in November.

To increase the amount of SDG-related research in the countries that most need it, it is necessary to “shift the center of gravity” of science to those countries, Tom Kariuki, Director of Programs at the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), said in his keynote presentation.

In 2016, the AAS partnered with the African Union Development Agency to launch a five-year plan embodied in the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) and comprising four pillars: building leadership and environments that support a vibrant research and development (R&D) culture over the long term; supporting the development of an innovation- and science-driven entrepreneurial culture; identifying and supporting rising research leaders to stay and build their careers in Africa; and targeting critical gaps in the research landscape.

“We’re a continent guided by young people, young scientists seeking opportunities in Africa,” Kariuki said. “Everyone has heard about our challenges in terms of migration and the brain drain. Part of our job is identifying the best ideas – there’s no scarcity of ideas – and providing support for them. When they’re supported, these youngsters can build their careers here and become independent and competitive in the global arena.”

Wealthy countries can contribute to the funding of research in Africa and other dispossessed regions. For example, the AESA’s Grand Challenges Africa initiative promotes African-led scientific innovations to help countries achieve the SDGs. It is funded by institutions based elsewhere, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (ASDI), among others.

“One of the options is joining specific programs such as Grand Challenges [which has other editions in countries like Brazil and India]. Another is taking part in programs with global calls for proposals, such as the Belmont Forum, and then providing support through calls only for African researchers. In this case, it’s possible to make sure that African researchers are the main candidates,” said Anna Maria Oltorp, ASDI’s Head of Research Cooperation.

Global climate change: research for prompt action

The third and last day of the Second Global Forum of Funders (April 28) featured a session on global climate change with a presentation by Anand Patwardhan on the challenges and opportunities of multilateral collaboration in action research. Patwardhan is a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy in the United States, and Co-Chair of the Adaptation Research Alliance (ARA), a coalition of scientists and research and action funders that aims to accelerate investment in action-oriented research for adaptation and resilience in developing countries.

According to Patwardhan, the conditions ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), to be held in November in Glasgow (Scotland), are very unfavorable owing to underinvestment in action-oriented research, a disconnect between research and the needs of the most vulnerable, misaligned incentives, institutional barriers, low coherence and coordination in adaptation research, limited capacity in communities and developing countries, and limited learning from implementation due to a lack of metrics.

The ARA’s mission is to reverse these conditions by means of advocacy, research planning and cooperation, and resource mobilization and delivery. “The goals are reducing climate risks and building resilience, improving access to finance for climate adaptation, and increasing developing countries’ capacity to undertake and use research that develops local adaptation and resilience solutions,” Patwardhan said.

Jean Ometto, a member of the steering committee of the FAPESP Research Program on Global Climate Change (RPGCC), stressed the need to include local communities in research planning from scratch, motivate private actors, who participate much less than they could, and call on the younger generations to contribute enthusiasm and energy.

In a wrap-up presentation on overall conclusions and next steps, Heide Hackmann, CEO of ISC, highlighted the value of regularly convening the Global Forum of Funders as an open platform that brings together different types of funders from the public, private, philanthropic, and international development aid sectors to facilitate deliberation on emerging trends, priorities and new initiatives, exchange strategic information, ideas and best practice approaches, and identify and promote new partnership opportunities.

“But the Forum must be more than a talking shop,” Hackmann said. “It must serve as a community of common purpose, committed to working with the international scientific community and other stakeholder communities to call for, help shape and support game-changing, science-based action for global sustainability transformations.”




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