Space projects scrubbed in UK overseas aid cut

Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent
@BBCAmoson Twitter

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image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe DETECT project would find breeding pools before they became a serious problem

Space projects are the latest international scientific collaborations to lose funding because of the cut in UK overseas aid.

Ten initiatives that would have used space data to tackle developing-world problems, such as human trafficking and flood vulnerability, have had their support cancelled.

Ministers are dropping the commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid.

The result of Covid financial pressure, the move is supposed to be temporary.

But for the affected projects, it has left them scrambling to find alternative financing in an attempt to keep their ideas alive.

The projects all fall under the UK Space Agency's award-winning International Partnership Programme (IPP).

The IPP has grant-funded 43 projects in 47 countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America since its launch in 2016 - and is acknowledged by independent assessment to have had high impact. Annual spend has been about £20m.

But no new collaborations will receive support in 2021/22.

The 10 projects that received initial, or "discovery", funding last August have been told they won't now get the cash to move to the "delivery phase".

image copyrightAndrea Berardi/DETECT
image captionSatellite data backed up by drone investigations would identify the mosquito ponds

Dr Andrea Berardi, from the Open University, described the decision as "sad", "embarrassing", and "frankly baffling" given the relatively small sums involved.

His DETECT team is using satellite radar data to find areas of water that are potential breeding zones for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Drones would investigate these pools of standing water and deliver a safe biocontrol agent.

"I think we would have revolutionised mosquito vector control in hard to reach areas, especially like the Amazon region where basically all other control methods have completely failed," Dr Berardi told BBC News.

"We made promises to governments in three countries - Guyana, Vietnam and Sri Lanka - that we would be offering the solution to them with UK government support. This is incredibly damaging to the reputation of the UK."

image captionAn algorithm was developed to find sargassum at sea in satellite images

Earth observation consultant Dr Geoff Smith has been working on the University of Nottingham-led SAtellite SArgassum Monitoring System (SASAMS).

This would use spacecraft imagery to find problematic seaweed invasions along Mexico's Caribbean coast. Large quantities of sargassum can disrupt the local ecosystem by smothering seagrasses and corals, and the fish that live among them; and will damage tourism because people don't want to visit blighted beaches.

"SASAMS would allow people to plan better, by seeing the seaweed a few kilometres offshore. They'd know where to put booms out to try to collect it before it reached the beaches. It's a solution that could be used all around the Caribbean," Dr Smith explained.

"We'd developed the technology, engaged with stakeholders and were looking forward to seeing the operational phase - and then we got a letter to say it wasn't going to happen."

What has puzzled IPP teams is the emphasis put on their type of international engagement in Tuesday's Integrated Review, which set out new foreign policy objectives for a post-Brexit Britain.

The overseas development assistance (ODA) approach was praised in the document, which led Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, to comment: "There's a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science. The Integrated Review is full of fantastic and achievable ambitions, but the words are meaningless if they're not backed up with funding."

The UK Space Agency disperses the funds it receives from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. A BEIS spokesperson told BBC News: "The UK remains a world-leading aid donor. We will spend more than £10bn this year to address poverty, tackle climate change, fight Covid and improve global health.

"We are working with our delivery partners, including the UK Space Agency, to implement the new settlement for 2021/22 and protect the most effective research programmes."

Ministers intend to set out their broader R&D plans shortly. They have promised to raise investment significantly, to reach 2.4% of national productivity by 2027.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the decision to cut overseas aid from 0.7% of UK Gross National Income (GNI) to 0.5% will be reversed when the fiscal situation allows. He told MPs the amount spent on aid even after the cut was "extraordinary".

The UK's national research funding agency, UKRI, informed scientists last week by letter that there would be a £120m shortfall for the projects it supports through the international aid budget.

UK Space Agency IPP projects already in the delivery phase will receive their expected funding this year.