by Dr Clarissa Giebel, Research Fellow at the NIHR ARC NWC and the University of Liverpool

The agony of waiting to hear whether your funded international project will be terminated prematurely. Yes, you read that right. Since the recent Official Development Assistance (ODA) research funding cuts have been announced, large numbers of fellow UK researchers have received a letter saying their funded research projects with low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) such as Colombia or Brazil will be terminated . Just like that. And then there are some of us who are still frantically awaiting to hear whether the work we have put in already, the projects we have set up, the people we have recruited, will see through to the end of the project or whether we just have to stop and drop everything. 

In November, we were lucky to have received funding from the ESRC and the Newton Fund for a 3-year project working together with researchers at the University of Antioquia to explore the impact of stressful life events (including la violencia and COVID-19) on the mental health of older adults.

Working together with Dr Maria Isabel Zuluaga and Dr Gabriel Saldarriaga in Medellin, Colombia, our project comprises three main components: First, we are conducting qualitative interviews with older adults and with health care providers as well as a quantitative needs assessment about older adults’ mental health. This way we will get a detailed picture of what has affected older Colombians’ mental health and their current state of well-being. Data will be collected in the turbo region of Colombia, which is a very deprived and rural region in the West of the country.

Our 3-year project is exploring the impact of stressful live events on the mental health of older Colombians

Second, we will be developing a community-based intervention to improve the mental health of older Colombians. This will involve a systematic review, interviews with experts in the field of global mental health interventions, as well as a series of co-production workshops, but more on our public involvement later.

Then, once we’ve understood what the issues are, and have come up with an intervention, we will pilot and implement the intervention in the Turbo region. And at the heart of all this is co-production and public involvement. We are working with older adults, carers, health professionals and community organisations to develop the project and the intervention, to make sure that what we do is addressing the real needs of people and makes an impact.

Right now, we are at the very beginning of the project – we only started officially in February, whilst Colombia started full steam ahead in December last year, establishing those many vital links with community organisations and leaders. Older adults may be less likely to seek professional support for any mental health issues, but instead are linked in with their communities, which is exactly what we are targeting as part of our intervention.

When I say we will do this, as I am writing this, there is the constant worry and uncertainty as to whether we will actually be able to do this. The University (of Liverpool) has just received a letter stating that they will have to make decisions about all funded ODA studies as to whether they are being terminated, re-shuffled, or not affected at all. So, where exactly does that leave us?

Our team in Colombia has already made those important connections with community groups, is engaging with the older adult population over there, and this substantial 3-year project gives hope to tackle a big issue. Well, it gave hope, because all these cuts are doing now is undermining working relationships with LMICs, not just Colombia of course, but also India, and Uganda, and many others. The ODA funding has been vital in addressing a myriad of issues that are affecting people living in LMICs, such as improving health and access to health care, but has also provided us researchers in high-income countries with a much needed perspective on how research can be taken out of its geographical area and have, hopefully, a meaningful impact to the lives of people who are in greatest need.

We can learn so much from conducting international research, and by exchanging knowledge on what works in one setting/culture/country to see how it could be implemented in a different space. Take our Colombia project for example. Yes, most of the actual field work is conducted (I am still writing in the present tense as I am desperately hopeful, yet also under no illusions) in Colombia, and thus representative of that population. But we can derive learning from this intervention and apply and implement this to different settings and populations.

We live in a global society. We go on holidays abroad (if we can afford it and if COVID-19 doesn’t put up barriers). We can have family and friends in different countries. We can move for jobs to a different country or continent. And we are all connected globally, via news and social media. Our perspective is global. So how come suddenly that the UK government is cutting its research ties with other nations? Horizon Europe and the dreaded Brexit were just the beginning it seems. For me as a German national having studied and worked in the UK for 13 years now, and many of my colleagues at UK Universities coming from all over the world, but really for us academics as a whole, the government’s poor decisions on global research funding sincerely beg the question about the future of British research. Do we want to be working in a sector where funding has a narrow outlook on national issues only? I think we all know the answer to that. If Brexit hasn’t done it yet, then this announcement will very likely see a significant exodus of us researchers to other shores. After all, if anything has shown how important global, collaborative research is, then it’s been this pandemic.

Ps. If you disagree with the funding cuts as well, sign this petition to try and revoke those cuts: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/580046