Covid recovery projects held up for months by red tape

Tardy response to UKRI request meant greenlit research projects on pandemic could not begin, investigation concludes

January 21, 2022
Westminster, Houses of Parliament
Source: iStock

More than 100 UK research projects focused on pandemic recovery faced lengthy delays because the government took two months to sign off a funding body’s request to redeploy its own funds towards Covid-related topics, a report says.

Highlighting “long delays” at UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in approving grant applications during the second phase of the funder’s “agile call” for Covid-related projects in 2020, an independent review has found that dozens of research studies recommended for funding were significantly held up by Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which took most of the summer to review a UKRI business case to reallocate £120 million of its funds towards pandemic-related studies

That pause – which covered August and most of September 2020 – meant UKRI often missed its target for reviewing Covid-related research applications within six weeks, says the report by the science consultancy Technopolis Group. Only about 12 per cent of the eventual grant winners had their applications approved within six weeks from July, the report indicates.

In practice, it meant a “backlog was created, where applications had been deemed suitable for funding, but could not be given the go-ahead” as UKRI awaited permission from government to spend its own funds on pandemic-related studies, explains the report.

“Such delays could be anything up to several months for some applications, and…estimates from various research council representatives suggest that well in excess of 100 ‘provisionally’ successful applications were affected by this type of delay,” it adds.

However, a government spokesman dismissed the report’s conclusion, stating: “We profoundly reject this assertion.

“UKRI Covid research funds were approved in a timely manner and as a result, the UK became the first country in the world to deploy an approved Covid-19 vaccine,” he said.

To remedy the apparent problem, the report recommends rule changes to allow UKRI to reallocate its budget more rapidly in the event of a future crisis scenario.

Overall, 4,010 applications were made to the agile call – opened in March 2020 to “address the health, social, economic and environmental impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic” – with 515 awarded funding at a success rate of 12.8 per cent. Almost 1,000 bids were made to the rapid response call focused on medicines and vaccines, of which 79 were approved for funding.

In general, UKRI was deemed to have “performed well in its function as a research and innovation funder under difficult conditions, having to process a substantially larger volume of applications at a much faster pace than would ordinarily be the case”, the report says.

Its governance was judged to have “performed very well” but notes it “had no pre-existing strategy or ‘brief’ specifying what UKRI’s role and objectives ought to be in a situation like the Covid-19 crisis”. That mission to support research funders was agreed early on in the pandemic, the report says.

The report recommends, however, that UKRI replace the existing online electronic systems used to submit applications – a process already under way – with a system that enables rapid design and set-up of new funding models where they are needed. It also calls for the creation of a small suite of different funding schemes for crisis responses of all types.

Welcoming the report, Jonathan Pearce, UKRI’s interim director of strategy and planning, said it “highlights what an amazing job the research and innovation sector did in rapidly responding to the pandemic, and that UKRI systems and processes stood up well under huge pressure”.

“It’s clear there are key lessons to be learned to ensure we are better able to respond to future shocks,” he said.

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