Coronavirus: emergency research funds required, warns Russell Group

As UK research laboratories close, research-intensive universities call for extra funds to cover cost of disruption to science

March 19, 2020
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The Russell Group of research-intensive universities is calling on the UK’s main research funding body to establish an emergency fund to cover the salaries of staff, PhD stipends and other research costs during the coronavirus shutdown.

In a letter to UK Research and Innovation published on 18 March, the group’s chief executive Tim Bradshaw said current plans to give a no-cost extension to research grants and reimburse some travel costs would not be enough to mitigate the huge disruption caused by the near sector-wide closure of laboratories.

“Given the scale of the impact of Covid-19, neither of these responses will be sufficient over the next 12 months,” says Dr Bradshaw, who said the shutdown “is likely to be severely disruptive to the careers and training of the people who underpin the UK’s research base”.

With a significant proportion of research experiments being put on hold, many staff on fixed-term contracts funded by UKRI and its research councils, including postdoctoral and PhD researchers, could see their contracts expire well before projects can be completed unless additional funding is provided, the letter says.

Universities are “unlikely to be able to bridge these gaps on their own, especially as research council funding meets only 72 per cent of full economic costs”, explains Dr Bradshaw, adding that “in the immediate future, our universities are likely to be further impacted financially by the delay or withdrawal of international students from our institutions”.

“We suggest an emergency fund be launched by UKRI to cover the salaries of staff, [PhD] stipends and other research costs during this period,” says Dr Bradshaw, adding that the “fund could draw on those monies already set aside for R&D by HM Treasury at this month’s budget statement”.

That cash – the immediate uplift of £400 million in science spending for 2020-21 announced by the chancellor Rishi Sunak on 11 March – should be awarded via a mechanism that was “simple and easily scalable”, says Dr Bradshaw, who suggests allocating it along the lines of quality-related funding as decided by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework.

At UCL, all research laboratories except those deemed “in the immediate national interest”, such as those doing research on coronavirus, will close by 20 March until at least 15 April.

David Price, vice-provost (research), said the emergency funds were vital to ensure PhD and postdocs were not penalised “due to no fault of their own”.

As UCL employed some 4,000 postdocs, if the crisis lasted for six months it would cost his institution in the region of £8 million for these staff alone, said Professor Price.

“This is the collateral cost of the coronavirus challenge,” he said, adding that, as postdocs and PhD students would be “crucial in delivering the UK’s industrial strategy…if we want to survive [as a nation] we have to preserve these people’s careers”.

Professor Price also agreed with the Russell Group’s suggestion to give institutions a certain degree of autonomy on how it allocates money to those laboratories affected by the shutdown.

“I suspect UKRI doesn’t have the bandwidth to do a grant by grant analysis on who has been disrupted and by how much,” said Professor Price.

On its website, UKRI said it will “review our call deadlines and, if required, extend or reopen calls” for funding, with extensions “considered on a case-by-case basis”.

In a statement on 18 March, Sir Mark Walport said the UKRI’s two priorities would be “the safety and wellbeing of our workforce and, as far as possible, the continuation of our business as a national funder of research and innovation”.

“We will work with our communities, institutions and other funding organisations to understand and respond to the impacts of coronavirus, helping to develop the necessary support to mitigate these,” said Sir Mark, who added UKRI would provide “regular, updated information” in the “coming weeks and months”.

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