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Covid-19 and the UK research landscape

04 May 2020

We reflect some of the key issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic for our member organisations

During this unprecedented time, we are working closely with our members to gather evidence about the impacts on the research sector in the UK. We’ll be using this blog to make a start on a non-exhaustive list of the issues facing different parts of the research sector, while at the same time we are working to feed these concerns and priorities into government.

There are a number of concerns that research-intensive organisations have that are not unique to the research sector, but are particularly difficult for science and engineering. Social distancing and lockdown measures particularly affect researchers. Here at CaSE we are largely able to carry out our work remotely at home, but most individuals don’t have a laboratory in their shed or basement and research projects have ground to a halt as a result. The inability to physically go to work is already having an impact on research across the UK, with those projects containing a time crucial element such as food trials, non-Covid clinical trials and astronomical phenomena being the most severely affected. This can be particularly concerning for those on short-term research contracts, and while UKRI have already stepped in to support final year PhD students, member universities are calling for the same guarantees to be made for post-doctorate researchers who play a pivotal role in academic research.

Another effect of the pandemic lockdown is the concern for the high street, losing regular income and struggling to make up for falls in revenue. One aspect of this that has already affected the research base is charity shops, who’s revenue often supports life-changing medical research. One of the unique strengths of the UK’s research landscape is the charities that fund and often undertake research. Three-quarters of AMRC’s members anticipate a reduction of 25% or more in fundraising income, with over a third of charities expecting a reduction of 40% or more. One of the largest research charities, Cancer Research UK, predicts their income to fall by 20% – 25% in the next financial year as a result of the pandemic. Existing CRUK institutes and response-mode grants have already been cut by between 5% – 10% and will look to make cuts to their centres and other infrastructure by up to 20%.

Small and innovative businesses could also be particularly vulnerable at this time. Many companies that are undertaking novel research will be at a very early stage and may not have a regular income from research products. As an example, pre-clincial and Clinical R&D companies tend to be Venture Capital-backed. They are dependent on reaching milestones in R&D programmes to unlock the next tranche of VC investment committed to them by their shareholders, or to raise fresh capital in a new funding round. They have carefully planned R&D programmes and are at risk of not reaching the required milestone before running out of working capital. The government has recently announced a support package for small businesses who have been successful in attracting private investment, and fast-tracking funding from Innovate UK to some of the most research-intensive small businesses. This commitment is welcome, but the speed and ease of access to this funding will be crucial to the success of the support measures.

The strength and breadth of the UK’s research base is defined by the collaborations and connections between universities, businesses, research charities and public sector research organisations. What the current situation highlights is how important these collaborations are for the future health of UK research, and that the problems I’ve briefly outlined above do not exist in silos. Research charities often fund research projects for early career researchers working for universities who in turn collaborate with innovative businesses. Businesses can form lasting and meaningful partnerships with universities and research charities, and successes in the private sector can help to drive progress in academic research. It is important, therefore, that we monitor the impact of issues in different parts of the research sector on the health of the research sector as a whole as the pandemic continues. We will be setting out more of these issues and the results of our evidence gathering in future blog posts and continuing to develop our other work in response to Covid-19.