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About the Authors

Robin W. Grimes is the chief scientific adviser to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Claire McNulty leads the British Council Science and Research team, the British Council’s contribution to the Newton Fund, and the UK participation in the European Commission's 'Euraxess' initiative.

Article

The Newton Fund: Science and Innovation for Development and Diplomacy

In order to address the most pressing global challenges and to ensure better livelihoods for current and future generations, we must find new ways to harness science and innovation. This includes solving challenges such as how to feed more than seven billion people and tackling emerging health threats like the Zika virus. It is, however, not sufficient for researchers from the most established science powerhouses to work alone, no matter their level of expertise. Research that addresses development challenges requires an international, cross-disciplinary, partnership approach, and demands an appreciation of cultural and geopolitical contexts. Success follows when innovative research is combined with a commonsense approach to generate useful solutions—be this by developing new technologies or by finding unique and efficient applications for existing technologies, or else by using social science approaches or other evidence to inform changes to policy and practice. 

In the United Kingdom, official development assistance (ODA) priorities include science and innovation projects that address development challenges.1 By strengthening a country’s science and innovation infrastructure, scientists and diplomats can not only improve national economic development and social welfare, but also create sustainable change. Fostering science diplomacy outcomes is encouraged by the structure of a UK program, the Newton Fund. One of the most striking aspects of the Newton Fund is that all participating countries co-own, co-fund, and bilaterally determine the research priorities of work programs.

Success follows when innovative research is combined with a commonsense approach to generate useful solutions—be this by developing new technologies or by finding unique and efficient applications for existing technologies...

Although launched only in April 2014, the Newton Fund has already involved thousands of researchers in partner countries. Generally, the fund aims to develop international science and innovation partnerships that promote economic development and improved quality of life, resulting in stronger bilateral relationships between the UK and sixteen partner countries. Managed by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, the fund is overseen by the minister for universities and science, a position currently filled by Jo Johnson.

In addition to facilitating collaborative work by international scientists, the Newton Fund holds the potential to build trust between national agencies, as well as the opportunity for these agencies to become more familiar with one another’s processes and systems. Overall, the initiative is aimed at producing long-term relationships with funders and policy makers, as well as between researchers themselves. While the program’s primary purpose is to support development, it could also have an impact on diplomacy, and although such effects are often only apparent after many years, there are some encouraging early indicators of success. For example, a UK-China research project on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has already helped inform a ban on the antibiotic colistin, an additive for animal feed, which came into effect in China on November 1, 2016.2

Origins

Much work remains on the road to achieving sustainable development, but we are fortunate that scientific capabilities have progressed sufficiently to begin to tackle long-standing disruptive problems, such as those associated with the energy-food-water nexus or access to healthcare. In addition to the Newton Fund’s focus on research itself, the program places importance on nurturing and supporting researchers in developing countries in order to generate novel solutions to local challenges. For such efforts to succeed, people must have access to opportunities and training from the beginning of and throughout their careers, and talent must flow two ways, so that networks of researchers can build meaningful relationships for long-term collaborations. An important side benefit of this process is deeper understanding between people from different cultures and backgrounds, which can augment international relations and underpin diplomatic progress.

One of the most important aspects of the Newton Fund is the true partnership it fosters with participating countries. In each partner country, a national ministry or agency leads the local Newton Fund program by helping define priority work areas, appoint delivery agencies, provide or facilitate funding, and codesign a strategic direction. Even the name Newton is not “one size fits all” but instead is often combined with a second name chosen by the partner country. For example, in Malaysia, it is known as the Newton–Ungku Omar Fund, celebrating the medical researcher Ungku Omar Ahmad. In Egypt, it is known as the Newton-Mosharafa Fund, after a prominent physicist, Ali Moustafa Mosharafa Pasha.

Newton Fund Facts and Figures

At its inception in 2014, the fund was projected to provide £75 million a year for five years. However, encouraged by the degree of engagement and enthusiasm of partner countries, a decision was made to extend the project. Thus, the 2015 UK government spending review extended the program to 2021 with a staged increase of the fund to £150 million per year. Currently, the total investment from the UK stands at £735 million, even though the distribution of funding among the various partners varies quite considerably. China and India, for example, are the largest partnerships, reflecting their larger research bases compared with other partner countries. Although the total amount of the Newton Fund may not be on the scale of multibillion-pound (£) research funds administered at a national level, the fund is unique in the large amounts dedicated to bilateral partnership programs, which are by nature more complex to run, as well as in the requirement for partner countries to contribute matching funds.

Alongside Malaysia, Egypt, China, and India—already referenced—the partner countries are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam, with Kenya having joined in 2016. All partner countries appear on the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee list of eligible nations to receive ODA (except in the case of Chile, which was on the DAC list until December 2016, and where the Newton Fund program will focus on partnerships to address global challenges and challenges faced by other countries on the DAC list going forward). Partner countries have also previously expressed an enthusiasm to work with the UK to increase their use of research and innovation for economic and social goals. Correspondingly, the main objective of the funded programs must be to focus on the economic development and welfare of the partner countries, or address global development challenges. In an effort to support the best people and projects within each research program area, research and innovation projects supported through the Newton Fund are all selected via an open, transparent, and competitive process.

Through May 2016, the fund had supported more than 450 students and fellowships, funded more than 250 research projects, and enabled thousands of early-career researchers to start building their communication skills and international networks.

Partnerships

Country partners were identified using an array of metrics, including not only the number and quality of publications but also the general trend for such an indicator—for example, the change in the share of the most highly cited papers. Innovation indicators were also used, such as the World Economic Forum rankings of capacity for innovation and the number of patent applications per year. Partners were qualitatively assessed for their appetite for engagement with the UK—informed by the embassies and British Council in the various countries. 

The majority of project proposal submissions are from open research or innovation calls, which commence at different times throughout the year. All proposals must involve a significant bilateral (and, in some cases, multilateral) component. Additional activities support the broader science and innovation landscape through training and consultancy.

The Newton Fund supports three broad categories of activity:

  • People: Improving science and innovation expertise, or “capacity building”; this includes student and researcher fellowships, as well as mobility schemes or workshops. There have are also been elements of training and skills building for researchers and innovators alike, and for other stakeholders in the science and innovation landscape, such as public policy makers or practitioners in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. This activity supports the wider research landscape and ensures a robust pipeline of young scientists and engineers.
  • Research: Collaborative research on topics that contribute to the economic and social development of the partner country; establishing joint (basic science or applied science and engineering) research centers and access to research and innovation infrastructure.
  • Translation: Funds to generate innovative solutions on development topics, such as collaborative projects on sustainable cities and urbanization, or programs focusing on entrepreneurial skills for engineers, which support the commercialization of new ideas. It is here that nonacademic organizations can get most heavily involved in the fund—for example, businesses applying for collaborative innovation grants, or NGOs or community groups working with researchers to address specific local challenges.

On the UK side, program calls are delivered by one or more of the sixteen delivery partners, with the UK Research Councils playing a significant role. Because the Newton Fund covers various research sectors, including the social sciences, arts, and humanities, as well as the natural sciences and engineering, all seven of the UK Research Councils are involved in the process to some degree. The UK academies (Royal Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, Academy of Medical Sciences, and British Academy—the last covering social sciences) have also played an important role by recognizing, supporting, and promoting excellence in research and encouraging its use to benefit humanity. The British Council is another key delivery partner that has a long history of international engagement. The council’s activity in all Newton partner countries is focused on capacity building and provision of medium-scale opportunities for Institutional Links, a Newton Fund program that provides two-year research and collaboration partnership grants in the translation category.

A far greater proportion of work on the translation category is delivered by Innovate UK, the government agency that shapes and supports the UK’s innovation landscape.3 Finally, the UK’s national weather service, the Met Office, delivers projects through its Weather and Climate Science for Services Partnership program, which “builds the basis for strengthening the resilience of vulnerable communities to weather and climate variability.4

Within the partner countries, organizations with similar missions to their UK counterparts act as funding or delivery partners. In South Africa, for example, several partners are involved in addition to the lead Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (NRF), including the Technology Innovation Agency, Department of Higher Education and Training, Medical Research Council of South Africa, South African Weather Service, and the UK-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Similar arrangements exist with other partner countries. In most cases, bilateral Newton boards or task forces are chaired jointly at the government level, and work together to identify appropriate topics and delivery partners for successful implementation of the quality assurance process.

Program and Applications5

Examples of recent calls for proposals, from spring 2016, highlight the breadth of Newton Fund programs.

  • A call for NRF South Africa—Fellowships for Early Career Researchers, with the focus clearly on the people category. The UK delivery partners are the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Society, and on the South Africa side the NRF and Department of Science and Technology.
  • Short-term research fellowship opportunities in the UK for Vietnamese researchers, delivered by the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the National Foundation for Science and Technology (NAFOSTED) in Vietnam.
  • Research Councils UK (RCUK)—a networking workshop to initiate collaborative working relationships between UK and Southeast Asian researchers. The workshop had three themes—atmospheric pollution and human health; water resources; and tropical peatlands and mangroves—and was held in preparation for a call later issued jointly by RCUK, the Indonesian Science Fund, the Thailand Research Fund, and NAFOSTED in Vietnam.
  • A Newton–Katip Celebi Fund for agriculture-food innovation in Turkey, delivered by Innovate UK and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK). This project will focus on the translation category.
  • A call for Institutional Links (research and innovation collaborative projects, noted earlier, designed to address specific development challenges); managed by the British Council with partners from Brazil, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand.

As these examples show, the programs differ in scale and scope, with some focusing on the mobility of individuals (both to and from the UK) or training, and others supporting longer-term research or innovation. Whatever the program, all applicants must describe the problem(s) to be addressed and provide project goals, objectives, and a research plan. In some cases, applications are assessed by both a UK and a partner-country panel, and scored separately in categories of quality and ODA relevance (e.g., the British Council Institutional Links call). Applications must therefore not only be considered high-quality research proposals by both countries but also address a development issue of importance to the partner country (e.g., dengue fever in Mexico).

For the translation category, there is a focus on measuring the benefit of research—by technology spin-offs, for example, or by engagement with policy makers and communities. One example of the Newton Fund helping expand the benefits of research is a device developed by teams in the UK and Vietnam to measure lung function for early detection of lung cancer. Both the UK and Vietnam have high rates of mortality due to air pollution,6 and although the device is in initial development phases, it will potentially have a positive impact on the treatment of lung cancer. Other promising research developments have arisen from PhD placements or fellowships, which have resulted in the validation of a method to detect drug-resistant bacteria,7 a finding relevant to the wider challenge of AMR.


Importance of Adaptability and Shared Commitment

A key collaborative element of Newton Fund projects, noted earlier, is matched funding or matched effort. For each partner country, the UK provides some funding for the overall programs of work. This is matched by a mix of funding that may come from the partner country’s government, individual institutions, private foundations, multilateral organizations, or corporate partners. The exact composition of match funding is adjusted to reflect the different projects being supported—for example, match funding for a collaborative research project could cover the costs of research staff in the partner country, which may be lower than the cost of research staff in the UK. The matched funding requirement is important, not only because it enables more to be done with the funding pot but also because it establishes a relationship wherein both the UK and its partner countries have an equal stake in the program and a responsibility for driving the strategic direction of the fund.

This partnership of mutual respect and commitment is crucial for the long-term international relations aspect of the project. It signifies that during the genesis of the project, although the Newton Fund offered a “menu” of possible schemes, the UK partners did not impose these options on the partners. Instead, the initial conversations centered on understanding the partner-country needs, and responding where appropriate. Two such examples are the Reflora project in Brazil and the South African Research Chairs Initiative.

In Brazil, during the earliest conversations with the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, it became apparent that one of the country’s highest priorities was the Reflora project, which enables the digital repatriation of plant specimens held at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London. Some of these specimens had been collected as far back as the nineteenth century by renowned botanists such as Richard Spruce. In digitizing plant specimens, the project aims to create a virtual herbarium. The online platform will be vital for taxonomic and ecological studies, as well as for providing support for national environmental policies and management of resources. Although this project did not match the initial menu of opportunities, the UK adapted its approach to make it happen—with support from the Newton Fund via the British Council professional development program—given the clear priority status articulated by the Brazilian government. As a result, 93,439 Brazilian herbarium specimens from seventy families have been digitally repatriated to the Brazilian online repository; twenty-four Brazilian researchers visited Kew for training and research trips; and, as of December 2016, thirty-six research papers have been published, 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 with a further seventy in preparation or under review. These include a study of medicinal plants used by women in Quilombo—a settlement of descendants of freed slaves.16 At a policy level, Reflora is enabling both the UK and Brazil to meet their obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity while also striving to reach the targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

In the case of South Africa, the Research Chairs Initiative was established by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation as a flagship program, predating the Newton Fund by several years. It was designed to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation at South African public universities and had succeeded over the preceding years, according to a 2012 review of the program. Under the Newton Fund, the British Academy and the British Council worked with the NRF to open up this scheme to allow senior researchers from the UK to apply for the chairs, with the result that now three UK–South African Research Chairs are helping build capacity and support research excellence in areas such as food security, through strong connections between the two countries.17These three chairs are held by established researchers who spend half their time in the UK and half in South Africa, and through the scheme they can provide their South African research students with opportunities to travel to the UK to gain experience and access to different facilities and expertise.

Science Diplomacy

The promotion of bilateral and multilateral science collaborations benefits the diplomatic process through building trust and understanding at a personal level, and by laying the foundations for long-term relationships based on common goals. While such work collaborations are easily justified on broadly humanitarian or scientific grounds, the impact of a single project is sometimes forgotten as attention turns to the next project. Bringing the efforts together under one banner sustains the impact by providing a focal point, and furthermore provides a framework under which project synergies can be realized. With sixteen diverse partner countries, the Newton Fund stands out as a unique national science program, and the hope is that, in the future, it will lead to greater future multilateral opportunities. Indeed, efforts are already under way to bring in countries that neighbor existing Newton partners to encourage complementary bilateral activity.

Early indications suggest the fund’s positive effect on broader relationships; for example, in addition to the AMR policy impact in China mentioned previously18 work has been done on AMR in other countries, such as Vietnam.19 The fund has also brought together Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, China, and the UK to research sustainable rice production, supporting intraregional links as well as bilateral ties with the UK. Research with Kazakhstan has identified the key barriers to the uptake of renewable energy, and the results could potentially inform future policy decisions in this fossil fuel–rich country. Inevitably, such results would have wider impacts on climate change—one of the issues most in need of global science diplomacy.20 The Brazil Reflora example, meanwhile, shows how these new research collaborations may contribute directly to international obligations and also illustrates the volume of new research that will be generated through international collaboration. 

Overall, the UK and partner countries are building new and nurturing existing science-and-innovation relationships through the Newton Fund in an effort to promote the economic welfare of developing countries. The aim, as this article has illustrated, is to nourish long-term relationships based on excellence in science and innovation by working together on bilateral and multilateral programs. Toward this end, research output metrics will be monitored to gauge the success of the program. One such measure will be quality of publication outputs (e.g., citation numbers and journal quality)—important because good publications lead to enhanced national and individual reputation. Another measure is the amount of additional funding attracted to a project from alternative sources (e.g., industry and governments)—significant as a way to measure sustainability of the work. Also, the supply of program alumni who enter academia, industry, and government will be evaluated. This constitutes a critical measure especially because many of the programs aim to train early-career researchers in their own countries, so that they form part of the national human capital rather than contributing their talents to other countries. While the broader diplomatic impact of the Newton Fund is not yet clear, such a science cooperation program, with its shared vision and responsibility, holds great promise as a means to foster goodwill and build productive long-term international relationships.

Endnotes

  1. UK Department for International Development, UK Aid: Tackling Global Challenges in the National Interest (November 2015), http://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/478834/ODA_strategy_final_web_0905.pdf
  2. Timothy R. Walsh and Yongning Wu, “China Bans Colistin as a Feed Additive for Animals,” Lancet Infectious Diseases 16, no. 10 (2016): 1102–03, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(16)30329-2/fulltext
  3. Innovate UK, https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/innovate-uk
  4. Weather and Climate Science for Service Partnership Programme,” Met Office, http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/newton
  5. Newton Fund, http://www.newtonfund.ac.uk
  6. P. Anh Phan et al., Innovative Development of the Inspired Sinewave Device to Measure Lung Functions and Inhomogeneity for Diagnosis and Evaluations of Early Lung DiseasesIFMBE Proceedings 20 (2016): 256–59,  http://bit.ly/2i6Bz1G
  7. Y. Teethaisong et al., “A Combined Disc Method with Resazurin Agar Plate Assay for Early Phenotypic Screening of KPC, MBL and OXA-48 Carbapenemases among Enterobacteriaceae,” Journal of Applied Microbiology 121, no. 2 (2016): 408–14, doi:10.1111/jam.
  8. M. Sajo et al., “Developmental Morphology of a Dimorphic Grass Inflorescence: The Brazilian Bamboo Eremitis (Poaceae),” International Journal of Plant Sciences 176, no. 6 (2015): 544–53, doi:10.1086/681991
  9. Christian Silva et al., “Phylogenetic Relationships of Echinolaena and Ichnanthus within Panicoideae (Poaceae) Reveal Two New Genera of Tropical Grasses,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 93 (December 2015): 212–33, doi:10
  10. L. R. Oliveira, “Uso Popular de Plantas Medicinais por Mulheres da Comunidade Quilombola de Furadinho em Vitória da Conquista, Bahia, Brasil,” Revista Verde de Agroecologia e Desenvolvimento Sustentável 10 (2015): 25–31,  http://www.gvaa.com.br/revista/index.php/RVADS/article/view/3408
  11. R. P. Oliveira et al., “A Molecular Phylogeny of Raddia and Its Allies within the Tribe Olyreae (Poaceae, Bambusoideae) Based on Noncoding Plastid and Nuclear Spacers,” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 78 (September 2014): 105–17, doi:10.1016
  12. Reyjane Patricia de Oliveira, Marcos da Costa Dórea, and Cassiano Aimberê Dorneles Welker, “Lectotypification of Arundo Roraimensis, the Basionym of Cortaderia Roraimensis (Poaceae—Danthonioideae),” Phytotaxa 244, no. 3, (2016): 298–300, http://bit.ly/2ivwfYL
  13. Laíce Fernanda Gomes de Lima et al., “Two New Species of Graffenrieda (Melastomataceae, Merianieae) from the Amazon Rainforest,” Phytotaxa 267, no. 1 (2016): p 77, doi:10.11646
  14. Thaís N. C. Vasconcelos and Carolyn E. B. Proença, “Floral Cost vs. Floral Display: Insights from the Megadiverse Myrtales Suggest that Energetically Expensive Floral Parts Are Less Phylogenetically Constrained,” American Journal of Botany 102, no. 6 (2015): 900–9, doi:10.3732
  15. Danilo José Lima de Sousa et al., “Morphological and Anatomical Patterns in Pontederiaceae (Commelinales) and Their Evolutionary Implications,” Aquatic Botany 129 (February 2016): 19–30, doi:10.1016
  16. National Research Foundation, Five Year Review of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChi) (September 2012),  http://www.nrf.ac.za/sites/default/files/documents/Review%20Report.pdf
  17. Walsh, TR et al. China Bans Colistin as a Feed Additive for Animals. Lancet Infect 2016; 16: 1102–1103<
  18. Ryan Li et al., “Combating Antimicrobial Resistance: Quality Standards for Prescribing for Respiratory Infections in Vietnam,” Lancet: Global Health 4, no. 11 (2016),  http://thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(16)30267-4/fulltext
  19. Vu Dinh Phu et al., “Burden of Hospital Acquired Infections and Antimicrobial Use in Vietnamese Adult Intensive Care Units,” PLoS One 11, no. 1 (2016), e0147544, doi:10.1371
  20. Marat Karatayev et al., “Renewable Energy Technology Uptake in Kazakhstan: Policy Drivers and Barriers in a Transitional Economy,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 66 (December 2016): 120–36, doi:10.1016