UKRI GCRF Regional Engagement Event – Glasgow

Today I was at a one-day information event run by  UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). According to UKRI, the GCRF is a ‘a £1.5 billion fund announced by the UK Government in late 2015 to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries’. Also, ‘GCRF forms part of the UK’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment.’ My paraphrase is that GCRF funds research specifically to do good things™.

It’s already been good for me and my colleague Wegene Demeke because it funded our research in Brazil earlier this year. Now the onus is on us to follow up that 3-week project with a bigger piece of research leading to positive impacts on Brazilian society. So I was keen to learn more about how to do this from the funders themselves. In fact I was so keen I was on an aarrgghh-o’clock train this morning to sunny Glasgow. (I am not usually capable of simultaneous speech and locomotion, let alone anything approximating to thought, before about 10am.)

Lessons and take-home messages

  • GCRF has been going for more than 4 years and will finish at the end of year 5, so why did I only hear of it in mid-2018?
    • This is probably because my university was awarded an amount of funds for seed-projects in 2018, and I’ve not looked too assiduously for funding!
  • If I heard correctly, there isn’t a guarantee of GCRF 2.
    • However, UKRI and the research councils wouldn’t be running events like this if GCRF2 was unlikely.
  • According to other another researcher I talked to, Wegene and I aren’t the only ones finding it difficult to obtain funds for translation.
    • Our saga is too painful to repeat here.
  • The value of this sort of event is who you meet.
    • I met another researcher who is doing engineering research in Brazil. I hope this will help build our networks in Brazil.
  • There was much emphasis on GCRF research hubs.
  • There was also much emphasis on the GCRF collective programme.
    • However, the collective programme isn’t the only current GCRF funding stream at the moment. Researchers should also look for ‘network-plus’ grants
  • GCRF challenge leaders can be emailed at

Below the cut are my notes (edited for legibility) and photos of slides. I believe slides will be circulated, so I should eventually be able to replace the photos with better images.

Dan Haydon, Director of Glasgow University’s Centre for International Development

He has a vision for internationalisation: ‘building globalised research community through long-term partnerships with local experts’. Hence GCRF is a big opportunity.

There are three strategies

  • Support for partnership
  • Skills development here and there
  • Support for ECRs.

There are also opportunities to learn from (collective) experience, so his centre showcases and support to explore & promote new ways of doing research. This is based on connecting and supporting locally, complemented with international (organic) building, then reflection and synthesis.

Glasgow University has a GCRF co-ordination group, which works on strategy, internal competitions and ‘de-snagging’. This fits with ‘Glasgow 2020’, a universal vision and large Uni investment in a Research Hub. Hence Glasgow University gets allocated GCRF funding and Global Impact Accelerator Accounts. This has enabled ~120 pump-priming awards.

There are also GCRF competitive calls. These focus on interdisciplinarity and on new ways of doing research, such as

  • identifying challenges that can use our skills
  • delivering impact – tricky, need to think how research can have impact
  • embedding research into development framework. (This needs finding the right partners, according to Dan.

Dan’s vision of the future includesglobal campuses

  • sandwich north-south programs
  • de-colonised research
  • diversification.

Optimising decentralised low-cost waste water infrastructure: Stephanie Connelly

This was an example of how to build a collaborative GCRF project.

It started with a fortunate meeting with Asian Institute of Technology folk who wanted to reinvent the toilet. Stephanie and colleagues introduced the AIT folk to their microbial research. They then made a joint funding application. This paid for a pump-prime visit to Bangkok. They found that lots of sewage goes into sceptic tanks.<

AIT had developed solar sceptic tanks but they are fickle, there are no design or control criteria and their performance is unpredictable. So they applied for an EPSRC grant:

  • Work package 1 was a baseline study of septic tanks in the field. This included transferring skills from Glasgow University to AIT.
  • WP2 was about developing low-cost microbial pathogen detection.
  • WP3 was development of a ‘Wastebot’ to manage microbes.

Dan and Stephanie were asked to comment on building international teams

  • Dan says it’s hard to contrive. It works by starting from a partnership, then bringing in necessary other disciplines. But this should avoid add-ons/tokenism. So researchers need to co-design research without knowing what/who will be needed. This takes time!
  • Stephanie said her project sprang from a fortunate meeting, then being overheard by an angel funder (my phrase, not hers).
  • Mary Ryan, who hosted today’s event, said it takes lots of meetings and coffee to build connectivity, and that researchers must put people together wisely, in baby-steps.

Sian Rowland, UKRI

    • GCRF is framed by UK strategy and SDGS. It’s a fund with many delivery partners, including Scottish Funding Council. There are differences in fine details of rules between research councils.
    • There are challenge leaders in global health, food systems, conflict, resiliance, cities, education, global health
    • The greatest numbers of investments (beneficiaries) are in India and South Africa, and there are quite a few in Brazil.
  • Collective work was firstly promoted via interdisciplinary hubs, and now by the collective programme. Calls are coming soon!
  • There will be an HM Government spending review this year-end the first 5-year GCRF programme is ending, so they are collecting case studies. Please tell UKRI of yours!
  • The key principles are
    • Challenge and impact focus
    • Novel research
    • Measurable impacts
    • Scalable impacts
  • Interdisciplinarity: getting the right mix and a common vision in a project
      • Global partnerships
        • Co-development
        • Engagement
        • Genuine partnerships
      • Equitable partnerships
      • Identifying needs, which can be outside academia
  • Organisation and leadership
    • shared values, learning and development, ability to adapt


  • RTFM
  • Difference from previous calls
  • Due diligence early in process
  • Learn from others – not just other PIs
  • Need to be ODA-compliant/solution focussed.
  • Need to understand context
  • Don’t play disciplinary bingo
  • In-country partners need to be appropriate, involved in scoping, delivery and value add
  • Write everything you need in the application
  • Boards are 1/3 UK academic, 1/3 overseas academic, 1/3 non-academic
  • Need specific, measurable impacts
  • Need standalone statement of DAC compliance – be specific about your beneficiary country
  • Be fair when setting agenda: build dispute resolution methods
  • Look for guidelines and toolkits
  • Register everyone on Je-S
  • Need pathways to impact with timelines and milestones

Advice from DFID

    • Strong partnerships
    • Engage local policy makers
    • Engage with national processes
  • Look at research uptake
  • Calls may cover your research area, even if it’s not in call-titles
  • Look at all RCs’ calls, not just your RC.
  • There are other GCRF/ODA calls


  • Where are reviewers from?
    • From all over the call, field
    • Panel membership is published after panels have sat
  • It takes time to change policy – this is starting with due diligence
    • There is some UKRI activity about international due diligence
    • UKRI is trying to not overburden overseas folk with due diligence
  • Too much emphasis on India, etc?
    • It’s evolving but work was based on existing partnerships with Newton countries. However, GCRF is largely country-agnostic
  • What about safeguarding?
    • UKRI is trying to develop cross-government policy – it’s due next year. New Ts & Cs are in development
  • What about countries that need funds in advance, not in arrears
    • Sorry can’t do that: HM Treasury rules

Resilience portfolio challenge: Mark Pelling

He is the Resilience challenge-leader, and is talking from his personal perspective. Challenge-leaders are bridges between academics and RCs

This portfolio is moving from hazards and vulnerability to knowledge production methods and mediating systems in transition from hazard to impact. The closest synergies with urban and food-security

Context of this presentation: calls on Equitable resilience and Multi-hazard and systemic risk

You add value to your application if you include legacy of GCRF, e.g. NERC, ESRC, AHRC ‘building resilience’ challenge, if you refer to hubs and/or if you refer to/apply to GCRF collective programme.

The equitable resilience call is based on ‘Build back better’ and ‘leave no-one behind’. Hence it aims to build an evidence base to enable pathways to transition to sustainable development.

The structure of the challenge is built on

  • Transformative adaptation
  • Survivor-led humanitarian response
  • Enhancing local capacity through understanding and reducing risk
  • Risk-management development co-benefits.

Hence there is need to wire projects right into work embedded in practice and policy actors, and into working with those at risk.

The multiple & systemic risks call is:

  • Just launched
  • Up to £3·5m per project, 2 projects
  • Motivated by WTO document on importance of environmental shocks leading to risk cascades
    • So interested in developing worlds countries building effective resistance
  • Focus on vulnerability of communities to multiple environmental processes leading to risk cascades, spreading beyond natural disasters
  • Research challenges (must hit all of these)
    • drivers of multi-hazard events
    • Characterising cumulative impacts of risk chains
    • Increasing resilience to multi-hazards and systemic risks
  • Applications are expected to be case-studies working across scale, time and system


  • My burning question during the discussion part of this session, and some thoughts from our table
  • How about post-docs and fellowships for ECRs?
    • Check with academies
    • Researcher/co-investigator status – check with RCs
  • Why is it difficult to fund graduates fees & stipends from GCRF?
    • Dunno – we need to work on this!

Cities and sustainable infrastructure: Jaideep Gupte

He is challenge-leader. This work can also be about non-cities, e.g. tar-sands in Alberta, and how these connect to cities. Connectedness and themes are more important to GCRF than geographies. GCRF projects speak to Sustainable Development Goals 11, 15, 13 mostly.

GROW & Hubs foster coherence within and between portfolios/challenges. Projects should focus on everyday realities, ODA priorities and on most marginalised/least resourced urban residents. They should also focus on things that are legible to local change-makers.

‘urban’ is not simply a location with many people crammed together. So projects can investigate:

  • rural <- -> urban <- -> land
  • built environment <- -> social environment  <- -> natural environment
  • On-grid <- -> off-grid
  • surface <- -> sub-surface

The current huge challenge is how do we accommodate 4 bn people in 40 years? (This needs as much infrastructure as was built in the last 1000 years.) One part of the answer is planning and governance around access, use and maintenance.

SFC perspective on GCRF: David Beards

He is in SFC R&I team. Before that, he was in climate change part of SFC trying to reduce Universities’ carbon footprints. There is an analogy with Scotland’s national performance framework:

Theories of change

  • Map research strengths to global challenges
  • Creativity and interdisciplinary work
  • Co-design
  • Developing capacity here & there
  • Boost to sector’s outward-facing activities
  • Realising Scotland’s international ambitions
    • Overseas tend to think of Scotland as food and drink

SFC funding aims

2019-20 SFC awarding £11·8 million GCRF funds. Each Scottish university is receiving some of this

In 2016-7

  • £2·3m
  • 120 projects
  • 51 DAC partners
  • Main research areas:

in 2017-18

  • £4m
  • 330 projects
  • 75 DAC partners
  • Interesting research themes
    • Community resilience
    • Environment and governance
    • Cultural heritage
    • Sustain able tourism
    • Education systems
    • Hard-to-classify interdisciplinary projects: this is the GCRF magic, says DB

Where have we got to?

  • Rapid broadening of sector engagements
  • Investment in capacity and partnerships
  • Developing routes to impact
  • Developing thematic networks
  • Development of GCRF strategies


to build a global community of researchers committed to sustainable development and the eradication of poverty


  • Next week: Edinburgh meeting on education for development
  • Informal voluntary assessment happening just now

New & forthcoming calls: Daniel Robinson – senior research portfolio manager, ESRC

DR is senior research portfolio manager, ESRC

Calls coming in April

    1. Rethinking the off-grid city
        • On-grid/off-grid isn’t binary
        • Lots of governmanglement
        • Delivery partners: ESRC, NERC, AHRC, EPSRC, British Academy
      • Objective: to support the most marginalised and least resourced urban residents
      • Grants: £500k to £2m
      • Key dates
        • Opens 23 April 2019
        • Intention to submit 29 May 2019
        • Closes 24 July 2019
        • Panel November 2019
        • Work startss 1 Feb to 1 April 2020
    2. Sustainable energy and international development

    • Key dates
      • Open 1st week April 2019
      • Intention to submit 15 May
      • Closes 2 week of July 2019
      • Panel November 2019

Key criteria and activities

      • READ call-specific documentation
      • Research excellence
      • ODA compliance
      • Equitable partnerships
      • Impact – problem and solution focussed
      • Get registered on Je-S


      • PIs must be at an eligible UK RO (ESRC 80% contribution)
      • ESRC will fund justified international Co-Is. There is no cap on this budget-line.

Q&A Panel: Mark Pelling, Jaideep Gupte, Challenge Managers & UKRI Team

Points to note

Do all roads lead to policy documents? What is inspiring?

      • Ignore policy documents as end-goals – be more ambitious, go for relationships.
      • Policy may not be a pathway to impact.
        • Do other impactful things.

How does academia get input into calls?

      • Structured programme for resilience
      • There is a combined email for challenge leaders.
      • UKRI does overseas workshops

What is being done to learn about sending money overseas, getting visas etc?
Is there room for a call on such organisational things

      • No call as such but are looking at lessons learned, and how to teach them to others

How are reviewers briefed?

    • Aligned to individual call
    • Face-to-face briefing
    • Guided by expertise of panel members
    • Also guided by ‘intention to submit’ info

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