Inside Track | Funding new international collaborations to tackle global challenges

Louise Heery, Associate Director for Global Research Partnerships, outlines how the new International Strategy Fund will help us collaboratively tackle the most pressing challenges facing the world.

When Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hai-Sui Yu, and I presented the case for an International Strategy Fund (ISF) to the University Executive Group (UEG), I remember them saying how positive it was to receive a request along the lines of ‘International is something Leeds does brilliantly. Why don’t we do more of it?’ 

In recent years, our success in funding programmes such as the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, and through metrics used in university rankings, we’ve demonstrated that Leeds is ahead of the game when it comes to addressing global challenges. Not surprisingly, the stats show our success comes from being collaborative and inclusive, resulting in high-quality research and research-led education that have been co-designed and co-developed. 

The International Strategy Fund will build on this success, through a £7 million investment across five years (2022-2027). The University Strategy sets out a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for 10 strategic partnerships by 2030; the ISF will be invaluable to identify who those partners should be. This is quite a challenge, as you might imagine! 

At the moment, ISF is managed through a number of streams to support and encourage different kinds of partnerships, which are: 

  • faculty based
  • bilateral partnerships with overseas HEIs, which bring world-leading research groups together or explore novel collaborations in student education; and 
  • transdisciplinary partnerships, which are multilateral and incorporate different kinds of organisations, including other universities. 

As the fund progresses, these streams will be harmonised to ensure our strategic partnerships encompass a range of activities that are interlinked and complement one another. As we reach our fifth year, some of these partnerships should be operating as though we are universities ‘without walls’. 

Making a positive difference

All our partnerships should embody our University values, and through them the university’s vision for making a positive difference in the world. Many of our global research collaborations are already delivering impact in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The ISF is enabling us to explore SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals – at an organisational level. This aims to ‘strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development’. The ISF stream on Transdisciplinary Partnerships has been introduced with this very target in mind – to support the achievement of the SDGs in all countries, in particular developing countries. 

Does this focused approach mean academics will be asked to only work with a small set of core partners? Of course not. The extensive geographic footprint Leeds operates across enhances our reputation and delivers all sorts of amazing research and student opportunities. These activities existed before ISF and will continue in parallel. Our global research has always secured external funding, and this remains important to sustain this research and ensure its excellence and integrity. 

Across our global research portfolio, however, it’s obvious some organisations recur, and because of this, there’s an opportunity to work differently and more strategically with them. Our strategic partnership with the UK Met Office is a great example of this, as:

  • strategic priorities are agreed at a senior level
  • it includes provision for joint appointments
  • joint research has led to 500 peer-reviewed papers co-authored with Met Office staff, with more than 23,000 citations
  • it’s a student education partner, with the Met Office Cheney Fellow working on real-world problems with Masters Maths students. 

For both GCRF and the Newton Fund, the Met Office was a recurring co-investigator on many of our proposals, and through its own world-leading reputation, it opened doors overseas to in-country meteorology services and industry sector contacts. 

Equitable and inclusive

So many universities, like our own, have legitimate claims to describe their research as world leading. If, ultimately, we’re only aiming for 10 strategic partners, what else are we looking for? This is where shared values will be important, as well as the desire to make our own higher educational system more equitable and inclusive. 

Recently, the University signed a strategic partnership with the University of Pretoria. This originated with collaboration in food security, through GCRF AFRICAP at Leeds and Pretoria’s Centre of Excellence in Food Security, funded through the South African National Research Foundation. There are, of course, other research links with Pretoria, and we’ve started to interlink legacy projects resulting from GCRF AFRICAP and other GCRF programmes through ISF. These include:

  • FSNet-Africa – a programme that brings a cohort of postdoctoral research fellows from multiple disciplines and from across six African countries together to explore the African food system
  • FoSTA Health – an African-EU programme funded through Horizon Europe (HEu) to explore equitable food systems and a combined ‘one health’ approach; and
  • ClimBeR – a climate impacts and resilience initiative led by CGIAR (Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres): an organisation focusing on ‘science for humanity’s greatest challenges’, which is common to both universities. 

This research is central to the Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI) strategy. On the back of this, its Director, Professor Steve Banwart, one of our Deans for Global Development, is working with colleagues at Pretoria and our own Digital Transformation service to develop new Continuing Professional Development (CPD) modules in food safety. We hope this will be the first in a suite of similar digital training courses.

Elsewhere at Leeds and Pretoria, two multi-year GCRF programmes – GCRF African SWIFT and DARA (Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy) – are supporting a next generation of researchers to establish a new ISF Hub for Data Science and AI for Maths and Physics. These are disciplines that are becoming more important for exploring global challenges, but which haven’t traditionally engaged in this kind of research. 

ISF is only in its first year, but already I can see it acting as a catalyst for different kinds of partnership and for conversations about which partners bring regional and national influence to the table, not only for research excellence, but with policy and decision makers investing in HE. Through its links, Pretoria has included Leeds on two initiatives it’s co-leading: one to establish a PhD platform for a global community of sustainability scientists and another led by the EU-Guild to establish African-EU Clusters of Research Excellence for equitable collaboration. 

There are other partnerships being developed through ISF in Europe, North and South America, India, Indonesia and China, as well as with other African countries. The models may vary but the KPI – 10 strategic partners by 2030 – and the vision for Leeds to make a positive difference in the world remains the same. 

Next steps

The annual deadline for ISF will be 30 June. This is so we can make awards as close to the start of the financial year as possible. As we coalesce and harmonise around specific partnerships, the application and review process will be adapted. The ISF Steering Group will have oversight of this. It’s chaired by Professor Yu, includes the two Deans for Global Development, and has representation from across faculties and professional services. 

A full list of ISF awards for this year will be made available in August, so you have an idea of what we’re looking for when considering an application for funding. I’m really looking forward to seeing what has been submitted!

For further information, please contact the global research team at; Head of International Partnership Development in the International Office, Claire Mulholland at; or your Faculty Pro Dean for International. 

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