Coronavirus: Whitehall team to consider help for UK science and HE

Science minister announces new joint team of government departments to consider assistance for sectors

March 24, 2020
Source: iStock

A joint team involving several Whitehall departments has been established to consider how it can support UK universities and researchers during the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter published on 23 March, the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had set up a joint team involving UK Research and Innovation, the Department for Education and other government departments to “consider what measures are necessary to support universities, the research community and research institutions during this very difficult time”.

“I am conscious of the consequent pressures the current situation places on universities and other research institutions,” said Ms Solloway, who added that she was “keen to continue talking with and hearing from the research sector during the challenging weeks ahead”.

The team’s creation comes amid predictions that many of higher education’s revenue streams – including income from international students, conferencing and summer schools – that are often used to subsidise research will collapse because of the international travel bans and lockdowns ordered by many countries.

Ms Solloway – who was appointed science minister in last month’s ministerial reshuffle – did not give any details of what support might be forthcoming to the higher education or research sectors, but did allude to the fact that “some researchers will be concerned about the delivery of their projects and about their employment terms and conditions in the short and medium term, particularly where research projects may not complete in their expected timescale”.

Last week, the Russell Group called for the creation of an emergency fund – worth at least £400 million – that could be used to extend research contracts in cases where experiments and projects have been paused while laboratories are shut to help suppress the spread of the virus.

Addressing this issue, Ms Solloway said she was “sure that universities and research institutions will provide continued and meaningful assurance to their staff on this matter”. She added: “As the Prime Minister said, now is the time to stand by your workforce.”

In her letter, Ms Solloway also thanked the research sector for the work it has been undertaking to address the impacts of the virus, highlighting in particular those working on related challenges “whether through research staff, infrastructure or work with industry on vaccines, ventilators and testing equipment”.

“It will be through the expertise of your institutions and your teams that we will find the way to overcome the challenges we currently face,” Ms Solloway said.

She also expressed gratitude that universities were considering how physical attendance could be reduced, and encouraged those who could to work from home – given social distancing measures.

However, Ms Solloway also stressed the importance of crucial research work continuing as normal, although she acknowledged that decisions around what should be stopped or paused would be best made by universities and research institutes themselves.

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