Cuts destroy, hurt, kill: a critical metaphor analysis of the response of UK academics to the UK overseas aid budget funding cuts

New Publication Out, authored by Dr Maria Grazia Imperiale and Prof. Alison Phipps

Read the full open access article here

On 11 March 2021, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) body, which leads research funding across the UK, announced a substantial reduction in the international development research budget as a result of the UK government decision to cut the overseas aid budget. Our CUSP Network+ has been affected by the cuts: they had an impact on our project, as we had to pause or reduce our activities for a while.

Nowadays, we know that some projects have been terminated, while for others, funding has been re-instated.

In this article, we analysed news, blogs, interviews that UK-based academics wrote in response to the announcement of the cuts, from 11 March 2021 to 30 April 2021, through Critical Metaphor Analysis (CMA). Metaphors are powerful tools to express concepts and  shape reality. They can reveal language users’ intentions beyond what is said and what is not said. Metaphors are also a common way through which distress can be articulated.


Cuts as an Entity

As an example, we present here what we mean by CUTS ARE AN ENTITY. It is first striking that ‘the cuts’ are often presented as active agents – they abandon, expose, imperil, damage, hinder, destroy, hurt, undermine. The UK government is often mentioned as responsible for the decisions that led to the cuts, however, ‘cuts’ are often used as the subject of sentences. We explain this as CUTS ARE AN ENTITY:

Funding cuts at the United Kingdom’s Global Challenges Research Fund imperil the Rights for Time Network.

The cuts will destroy international partnerships with businesses, governments, and the third sector, as well as the UK’s reputation as a reliable and trustworthy business partner.

We tend to conceptualise things that are not bounded as entities and substances so that we can refer to them and quantify them in an attempt to better comprehend them. Even though ‘cuts’ are a number, and therefore a quantity, the experience of having a project cut is not something we can easily relate to as the consequences are unknown, and as such we might not know how to pin it down. Referring to cuts as entities allow us to identify a particular aspect of it. In addition, using the CUTS AS AN ENTITY metaphor not only helps our understanding but it also allows academics to distance themselves from it; since cuts are an entity of their own, they have their agency and are out of our control. It is the cuts as an entity that destroy, damage, hinder, expose and imperil, and we as academics have limited, if any, agency to stop them.

Cuts are an Illness

Another example, is the metaphor CUTS ARE ILLNESS.

The opposition health/illness has a strong persuasive role since it is evocative of emotions first of all: we associate anyone who is trying to restore health with someone who has the right intentions. Here lies the evocative and persuasive power of health/illness metaphors:

These cuts will not just affect researchers like us: they will hurt the marginalized communities with which we work.

The decimation of this vital funding stream will have drastic impacts.

Research as Connection

In these examples, we can see that metaphors are graded since there are different degrees of health and illness. Stronger evaluations are found in the opposition decimation/vital, whereas hurt may be a milder form of evaluation compared to the other examples on the health/illness spectrum.

It is also important to point out at the time of the cuts, and at the time of writing, the world is trying to re-emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, the polarisation between life/death and health/illness in communication has been omnipresent in the last year. Using health/ illness metaphors in this specific moment in time has a strong persuasive and evaluative function – even more so as some research projects that have been cut have a focus on health and medicine, including vital coronavirus research.

As opposed to cuts which are ILLNESS and THREAT, research is what allows us to break walls and barriers, and ultimately to return to health. We identified the following metaphors related to research: RESEARCH AS CONNECTION, RESEARCH AS HEALTH and RESEARCH AS A JOURNEY.

As an example, I discuss here the metaphor of RESEARCH AS CONNECTION.

The GCRF has enabled UK-based researchers to develop new networks and projects in low- and middle-income countries across the world.

Research can bring proximity as it builds networks and as its foundations are relationships of trust built over the years. Research links, while cuts separate. Research is based on relations, on trust, and nowhere more so than research in international development, where paradigms of participatory work and co-design are the normative basis for working with and safeguarding partners worldwide. The implementation of the cuts has broken the trust that academics had in the UK Research and Innovation funding body. This is a very concerning time for the UK academy.


It must also be said that during our analysis we realised that we also need to reflect on how we represent and communicate our work. The experiences of early career researchers, who often are in precarious positions, and the experiences of the international partners, who are the ones most affected by the cuts, have not been spotlighted in the debate. The GCRF (Global Challenge Research Fund) was created to fund and develop ‘equitable partnerships’. We did believe it, and we sought to change research and develop a more ethical approach that allowed partnerships to be considered equitable.

Perhaps this was an illusion. When someone comes with money, and others are at the recipient end, no partnerships can be equitable. When money is taken away, and only some jobs are affected while others are not, partnerships are not equitable either. When the voices we hear are mostly the ones in powerful positions, again we wonder whether we can call these partnerships equitable.

Perhaps then, we might need to change the discourse around partnerships; surely, we can call them ethical, but perhaps international development research is not and will not ever be equitable. But it definitely can be healthy, it can mean connection, it can be a journey undertaken together for the better.

You can download a copy of the full report and watch a short video about the project here via the TeachingEnglish website.

The Culture for Sustainable and Inclusive Peace (CUSP) is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of the UK Governments Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).