Research Policy

International Perspectives on COVID-19 and University Research

With the prospect of a vaccine now becoming a reality, thoughts are already turning to recovery, and how we can build a better post COVID-19 world. 

It is in this context that several notable reports have recently emerged, among them this one commissioned by Springer Nature.

Unequivocal in its recognition of the role of University research in the COVID-19 recovery, the report identifies three priorities (and a series of corresponding actions) for governments, policymakers and other stakeholders: 

  • Priority 1 – Protect research capacity (CAP1-5)  

CAP1 – Rebalance research effort to tackle changing national and global priorities 

CAP2 – Develop blended online and offline research methods 

CAP3 – Strike new partnerships to counter ‘research nationalism’ 

CAP4 – Address instability and structural inequality in academic career pathways 

CAP5 – Reform postgraduate research training 

  • Priority 2 – Transition to open science (OS1-5)  

OS1 – Increase investment in digital infrastructure 

OS2 – Redefine roles for commercial and community actors 

OS3 – Enable innovation in peer review 

OS4 – Embed preprints in publication workflows  

OS5 – Adopt open science as the ‘new normal’ 

  • Priority 3 – Secure research funding (RF1-5) 

RF1 – Ring-fence research funding to underpin managed systemic change 

RF2 – Realign research investment towards biomedicine, digital and green technologies 

RF3 – Incentivise external partnerships, from discovery research to deployment 

RF4 – Reform funding procedures to deliver greater agility and responsiveness 

RF5 – Co-ordinate solutions to improve research system sustainability 

The full report can be found here.


Response to the impact of Covid-19 on PGR students’ research

A letter from Prof Simon Hodgson has been sent to all PGR students outlining the approach to help manage and mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 restrictions on student’ studies, together with the planned actions. 

The letter, entitled ‘Letter to Research Students – 20th October 2020’ can be found in the RIS SharePoint site, together with an ‘Application for consideration of academic merit’, which should be used by those students wanting to apply for additional stipend payments (as outlined in the letter). 

The letter and form can be found by clicking here.

This post was written by Julie Wright, Senior Research Administrator, Research & Innovation Services

Research Policy

Research Policy News, September 2020

UKRI data shows positive success rates in smaller HEIs

Research Professional suggests smaller less research intensive universities have the same likelihood of winning of funding as those in research intensive institutions. Read the article here and book onto one of our research funding workshops.

Regional Disparities in Research Funding

Research Professional find little has changed in the last 40 years in terms of regional allocations of research funding – see the article here. The levelling up agenda looks set to address this – look at some of the recommendations that would enable levelling up in the NESTA report on The Missing £4 Billion

Wellcome Trust – Changing Research Culture

As part of their work on reimagining research cultures, Ben Bleasdale from the Wellcome Trust has written on whether COVID-19 could change research culture for the better.

If you are interested in finding out more about responsible research and innovation, why not book on to one of our workshops.

Reducing the Bureaucratic Burden of Research

On 10 September, Ministers Donelan and Solloway, and Lord Bethell, announced a series of wide-ranging measures aimed at relieving the administrative and bureaucratic burden on the research, innovation and higher education sectors.

The measures proposed – which span all aspects of sector operations – represent a bold attempt to “support the research, innovation and higher education sectors through this challenging and uncertain time”.

Measures of note include:

  • A new funding scheme to cover up to 80% of a university’s income losses from a decline in international students.
  • A new £200m investment to support researchers’ salaries across the UK – bolstered by a further £80m redistributed from existing UK Research and Innovation funds.
  • A significant streamlining of current research and innovation grant schemes.
  • Major reforms to the way student level data is collected and used.
  • And “a radical, root and branch review” of the NSS.

Alongside these measures, the Government has called on all HE providers to engage in their own fundamental review of internal systems and processes. There is, surprisingly, no mention of REF.

Research Policy

Introducing the Government’s R&D Roadmap 2020

Following its budget promise to increase R&D spending to £22B by 2024/5 (and 2.4% of GDP by 2027) the UK Government launched its R&D Roadmap on 1st July, 2020. Light on detail, the roadmap, reaffirms the government’s longer-term spending commitments and sets out a list of development areas to realise its ambitions.

Business led innovation

The Government’s target that 2.4% GDP will be invested in R&D by 2017 assumes a significant part of that investment will be delivered through business led innovation. An Innovation Expert Group was established in August to shape innovation policy and prioritise actions which are likely to include unlocking finance for new innovative businesses, support for commercialisation through HEIF and an expectation that HEIs deliver on the principles set out in the knowledge exchange concordat . The roadmap states that Innovate UK (IUK) will ‘evolve further’ fuelling rumours that it could receive an even larger percentage of the science budget. ¾ of Teesside’s UKRI research funds come through IUK.

Levelling Up

Following autumn’s comprehensive spending review, the government will publish its UK R&D Place Strategy and set up a ministerial R&D Place Advisory Group to address long-term economic growth in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK through the levelling up agenda. Little has been revealed about the Government’s plans for a future place-based strategy, but Universities are expected to play a major role. NESTA’s recent report: The Missing £4 Billion; Making R&D Work for the whole UK (Forth and Jones, May, 2020) puts forward a number of recommendations on how R&D funds can support local growth and productivity.

(Post Brexit) International Collaboration

With participation in, or association with, Horizon Europe looking unlikely, the roadmap proposes the development of a ‘new agile offer’ to grow global collaboration that will support mobility of excellent researchers, develop partnerships with the world’s leading R&D-intensive nations and work with developing nations to tackle the UN’s sustainable development goals. However, to date no firm plans on replacement funding have been put forward. In 2019, the Adrian Smith Review Changes and Choices, outlined a number of proposals which may influence BEIS’ approach.

Research & Development Culture Strategy

Managing talent to attract, grow and retain outstanding researchers from more diverse backgrounds, is another commitment set out in the roadmap. This will involve developing a R&D Culture Strategy, reviewing the impact of COVID-19 on researchers, a new deal for PGRs, support for ECRs, investment in technicians, establishing an Office for Talent (to improve international mobility) and a ‘new offer’ linking research and innovation talent development to the levelling up agenda.

PMO Initiatives

A couple of initiatives led by the Prime Minister’s Office include government led ‘moonshots’ to address societal challenges – an idea which has emerged in recent years from Mariana Mazzucato at UCL and the creation of an £800M Advanced Research Programme Agency (ARPA) based on the US Defence Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). It isn’t clear yet whether UK ARPA will be a virtual or physical research institute to back breakthrough technologies but it is expected to support high risk initiatives, tolerate high levels of failure and be staffed by professional programme/project managers. It is not clear how these PMO priorities differ from the UKRI societal challenges set out in the industrial strategy except that their governance outside of UKRI means their funding will not be tied to the Haldane principle (that decisions about research funding allocations are made by experts in the field).

Reducing Bureaucracy

Finally, the roadmap is delivering on its commitment to address bureaucracy for research funding decisions published here and includes moving to a two staged streamlined application process, the replacement of J-eS, replacing varied funder approaches to CVs and track record information by adopting the Royal Society’s Resume for Researchers, including all details in one call document, and embedding equality, diversity and inclusion best practice in application procedures.

This post was written by Steph Bales, Director of Research and Innovation Services


A chance to do impact properly…

Last Friday’s news that UK Research and Innovation will remove the pathways to impact section from its grant applications, in which researchers predict the social and economic benefits of their work, was surprising.

The announcement contrasts with the government’s commitment to deliver an industrial strategy, and with science minister Chris Skidmore’s assertion the same day that “our future lies in those cutting-edge ideas, advanced technologies and rewarding new jobs that will power our economy and transform our society”. It’s also at odds with UKRI’s mission to “ensure everyone in society benefits from world-leading research and innovation”.

But no one should see the announcement as presaging the end of the so-called impact agenda, which has shaped UK research policy for a decade or more. If anything, it signals the opposite—a renewed and deeper commitment to research impact.

UKRI confirmed on Sunday that from March pathways to impact statements will no longer be required and that “applicants would detail impact activities in the Case for Support section”.

Requiring researchers to write pathways to impact plans gave them a strong incentive to consider the wider effects of their work. But they were always a blunt tool. While they encouraged researchers to engage with the wider world, I am  not convinced that they have led to significant economic and social impacts that would otherwise not have happened.

Wrong approach

This failure stems from focusing largely on the potential of a single piece of research. Meaningful impact comes from asking, not what benefits could follow from our academic work, but what we need to know and do to generate a specific change. It is ultimately wrongheaded that academia has owned and shaped the impact agenda.

Removing impact plans from grant applications is not without risk. For UKRI, pathways to impact have helped to drive a culture change. But the agency’s assertion that “the requirement to capture this in a separate section is no longer needed” is a bold claim.

A 2017 survey by the research careers organisation Vitae found that 35 per cent of early-career researchers had never heard of pathways to impact. The same proportion had heard of them but did not know what they were.

Impact is hard work. It takes time and planning, and often goes unrewarded. In some respects, academia’s relationship with impact is still in its early stages, yet to receive appropriate resource, recognition and reward.

By making impact optional, UKRI runs the risk that it might be sidelined, with researchers retreating to the safe confines and clear promotion criteria of the ivory tower. This would be a disaster in terms of delivering on the government’s ambitions for research.

But the removal of pathways to impact is unlikely to be the only change in UKRI’s renewed mission. Recent announcements make clear that impact remains hugely important.

Change the system

Writing in Times Higher Education last Wednesday, the executive chair of Research England David Sweeney hailed a “new and productive phase in fostering the deep, creative and high-impact research in which the UK is so strong”. Perhaps the latest change is ushering in this new phase.

To achieve Sweeney’s deep impact a new investment model is needed. I’ve argued for some time that planning impact around projects fails to deliver meaningful change. What’s required is an engaged, strategic, long-term collaborative approach centred on what people and society need.

UKRI’s existing funding for Impact Acceleration Accounts could offer an answer. But a lack of outcomes-focused planning and accountability—as well as patchy funding that has mostly gone to Russell Group institutions—has hobbled their effectiveness, particularly in terms of boosting regional development and delivering on the Industrial Strategy and the Sustainable Development Goals.

For the system to become leaner and less bureaucratic, as demanded by Number 10, impact requires increased quality-related funding from Research England, as well as focused investment streams for different types of impact work, such as public and policy engagement.

It also requires an increase in large-scale, outcome-based funding programmes for applied and commercial R&D, via Innovate UK and possibly the mooted UK advanced research projects agency. There should be more money for placed-based and challenge-led research, with monitoring and measurement underpinned by well-developed theories of change.

This would also mean redefining research excellence. The current criteria are unable to assess excellence in impact. Doing that requires an approach that is sensitive to context, and considers place and the needs and wants of communities and individuals.

The impact landscape seems to be shifting. But engaged researchers and impact professionals will remain essential to the research and innovation ecosystem.

This post was written by Dr Kieran Fenby-Hulse (Research Fellow in Research Policy and Impact in RIS) and was originally published on Research Professional: