Senior PEAK team at Medellin PEAK retreat

The Global Challenges Research Fund: what it's meant for Colombian researchers

As PEAK enters the final phase of its four-year project cycle, and as we try to take in the consequences of the news of the UK government’s global research cuts, I thought it a good time to take stock; of what this international collaborative research project has meant for my team, my research centre, and in fact for my wider university here in Medellin, Colombia.

How GCRF has supported our research agenda

The simplest way to evidence the impact of GCRF funding and of being a PEAK-Urban partner is to put some figures on the table. In the last three years we have increased our productivity (i.e. journal papers per year) by 58% and our co-authorship network grew by 70%.

The research papers published by our group during the 2018 -2021 period are in high impact journals covering 16 JCR categories including remote sensing, geography, transport, urban studies, civil engineering, ecology and development, among others. Because of the multi-disciplinary nature of PEAK, researchers published in a much wider range of publications, strengthening our philosophy of publishing each article in the journal aimed at the right audience, regardless of the journal discipline area. This encouraged the ‘thinking outside silos’ that PEAK has come to represent. 

COVID Impact

On first impression we felt that the pandemic created only minor interruptions to our research tasks and outputs, but on reflection I realise that the last year has not just been about how our outputs were affected, but about the impact on such a positive research process.

Before the pandemic, we had a small space occupied by undergraduate students, master's students, doctoral students, the PEAK postdocs (the first postdocs in the history of our University), and the visiting postdocs from other PEAK partners. It is difficult to explain what that space meant for all of us: the work dynamics, the buzz of interactions between disciplines, the drafts, processes, and methodologies that we wrote together on the whiteboard. All of that was suddenly taken away by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the connections we built with regional authorities and stakeholders before COVID-19 were crucial during the pandemic: our group had the ability to temporarily refocus its research agenda and use our knowledge to provide the regional government with ideas to face some of the economic challenges that came with the pandemic.

A new approach to funding for Colombian researchers

The PEAK project is the only international project we are currently involved in. The access to research funding in Colombia is minimal (Colombia currently invests 0.45% of its GDP in research and development (R&D) and when it is available it can often be an administrative nightmare. In my experience, whereas the access to research funds from the USA and the European Union is extremely complex, with the UK it has has been the materialisation of the ideal research and administrative dynamics: the transfer of resources is generous, the administrative management is based on trust, which allows researchers to be 100% focused on our work, and the roles of both institutions and researchers, far from being hierarchical, are horizontal.

If PEAK ends while we are still grappling with the pandemic, the chances of seeing our laboratory filled again with so much talent will be close to zero. Our research dynamics depend exclusively on the PEAK project. The pandemic has not, so much, affected our fieldwork, seminars, or journal articles. What the pandemic took away from us was our way of doing research and the possibility of making the most of quite a unique opportunity.

Keeping PEAK alive will allow us as a network to use what we have built and learned to date in generating ideas about how our cities might face post-pandemic challenges.