Funders extend deadlines as coronavirus disrupts research

Project delays, as universities and labs shut down, prompt grant flexibility – but levels of leniency vary

March 21, 2020
Road with years stretching into distance
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Research funders around the world have pushed back deadlines and offered to extend funding in a sign of the upheaval the coronavirus pandemic is having on academia globally.

Flexibility varies, however, with some researchers in the United States being asked to justify any missed deadlines, while others are being given blanket extensions, as universities and labs shut down because of tightening restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus.

The European Research Council said on 19 March that “many” of its projects are now “facing disruption and delays”.

It said that it would “try to find solutions on a case-by-case basis, using the flexibility provided by the grant agreement” but that it was taking longer than normal to get back to queries. Deadlines for Erasmus+ calls have also been pushed back.

In France, the country’s National Agency for Research has also pushed back its main grant deadline, the generic call for projects, from 25 March to 20 May.

A trio of Irish research funders has warned that “projects may be unavoidably delayed as a result of practical measures taken to contain the virus”.

The country’s Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, said that they would take a “pragmatic approach” towards areas such as call deadlines, progress reporting and “restructuring of project deliverables”.

The abrupt move to physical distancing across large swathes of the world also raises questions over whether academics forced to apply for funding virtually are at a disadvantage.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) has halted all interviews for current funding rounds, potentially for “several months”. It argues that it would be unfair to continue interviewing applicants online, because “we cannot guarantee that applicants will not feel disadvantaged during a teleconference” in such a high pressure situation. The NWO has also said that it will extend the deadline for impending grant calls.

The United States’ National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, has said that it will “consider accepting applications late, on a case-by-case basis”.

But it told researchers that reports or applications should be submitted “as soon as possible after reopening or resuming operations” and “not to exceed the number of days the institution was officially closed or unable to submit grant applications”. Applicants also need to justify late applications in a cover letter, the NIH said in guidelines issued on 9 March.

A spokesman for UK Research and Innovation said that the body would “review our call deadlines and, if required, extend or reopen calls in light of the impact of coronavirus. This will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the appropriate council or fund.”

Meanwhile, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has been less affected, said a spokesman – simply because “almost all” its funding calls do not actually have a deadline. “The programmes therefore have a great flexibility by nature,” he said.

Because of a hiatus in committee meetings and evaluations, all grants set to expire in the current budget year will be automatically extended, he said.

Worldwide cooperation is needed to beat the virus, the DFG and the National Natural Science Foundation of China warned in a joint statement. They called for new long-term support for “international collaborative research in epidemiology, virology and emergency management.”

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