Doctoral funding at risk if further cuts forced on UKRI

Experts warn that diverting cash to pay for Horizon Europe association would exert a heavy toll on early career scholars

March 29, 2021
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Thousands of PhD studentships and early career fellowships are in the firing line if the UK’s main research funder is forced to make further cuts to its budget, in a fresh sign of junior scholars’ precarity.

There are mounting concerns that existing budgets will be raided to pay for association to the Horizon Europe research programme, which before Brexit was covered as part of the UK’s contribution to the European Union budget.

With the science budget for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy yet to be confirmed for 2021-22, sector leaders warned that only rapid intervention from prime minister Boris Johnson could halt a cut of up to £2 billion to funding for UK Research and Innovation.

A cut on this scale to the research umbrella body, which has an annual budget of £9 billion, would cause major disruption – but the suddenness of the cuts would be a significant extra headache, warned Graeme Reid, chair of science and research policy at UCL.

“The bill for Horizon Europe may need to be paid as early as June and, if that happens, without extra Treasury money, it will cause mayhem across the whole sector,” said Professor Reid. UKRI would “have to cut things that can be cut rather than things that are a low priority”.

“It will not matter if your project is important or fits into the government’s R&D roadmap – instead, cuts will fall on least secure areas of funding, on people who do not have funding protections or whose employment protections are low,” Professor Reid said.

Support for new PhD students could be vulnerable because these projects have not yet started.

UKRI spends about £400 million annually supporting about 22,000 PhD studentships as part of more than £1 billion it spends on helping institutions with their postgraduate research activity.

“Because PhD students and casual staff are not paid very well, you need to lose an awful lot of people to make £1 billion of savings,” Professor Reid said, adding that such cuts would be “politically unprecedented” and “maybe would just look too ugly” for the Treasury to contemplate.

“Spending an extra £1 billion will not shift the dial in terms of public spending so I find it difficult to imagine government would be so inhumane to do this,” he added. “If you trash the university research sector for the sake of £1 billion, you’d also take a wrecking ball to countless relationships with business who want to partner with universities, who also provide talent for industrial R&D.”

John Womersley, former chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, agreed that new PhD funding and early career research fellowships could be an early casualty of any further UKRI cuts.

“Anything between two-thirds and three-quarters of UKRI’s budget is already committed, so its freedom around making savings is very limited,” said Professor Womersley, who added that a “10 per cent budget cut is really a 30 per cent cut in new commitments”.

“You would start looking at delaying entire doctoral training college intakes in some areas for a year, or massively reducing numbers, which would mean whole cadres of graduates looking to take a PhD taking an unplanned gap year and [they] may decide to look elsewhere,” he said.

“Avoiding these commitments might look like a good thing, but for these students who have applied for doctoral funding that is their chance cancelled.

“Obviously it would have an impact on the skills pipeline but it might be very hard to avoid [given the scale of the potential cuts].”

Owen Gower, director of the UK Council for Graduate Education, which supports the country’s 110,000 doctoral candidates, said that cuts to PhD funding would undermine the government’s stated aim for the UK to become a “science superpower”.

“To achieve the government’s R&D target of 2.4 per cent of GDP we need an estimated 25,000 more postgraduate researchers by 2027, irrespective of funding source,” Dr Gower said. “We should therefore consider very carefully before making any changes to the funding of PhDs.”

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