Inside Track - Lisa Roberts: Re-powering our research

Professor Lisa Roberts, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, provides an update on research activity and how we are working to bring all research back up to speed on campus.

Lisa Roberts 2017

As everyone is aware, all campus-based research activities, besides critical COVID-related work and maintenance, have been paused since 17 March.  However, I know that many researchers have been able to continue research work at home and this has been really encouraging to see.

I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work of research staff and postgraduate researchers (PGRs) given the circumstances - it has been incredibly inspiring to see innovative and collaborative research coming forward that aims to tackle the immediate crisis the world is facing.   

At the same time, I can appreciate the frustration felt by those who have not been able to work on their projects over the past weeks; particularly those who have felt the need to suspend studies and projects in light of these particularly difficult circumstances or those balancing caring responsibilities or home schooling. As a sector, we need to think about the implications of all of this on our researchers, particularly early career researchers.

As we now work towards safely implementing a gradual re-opening of campus, I felt it was a good time to provide an update on research matters.   

External engagement and funding

Throughout this period we have been fully engaging in discussions, both within the Russell Group and across the sector, and lobbying with key funders on a number of research-related issues. 

There are still many questions that we do not yet have answers to, so please bear with us – we will provide updates as soon as we get further information.     

The Research and Innovation Service (RIS) team is providing daily updates from the different funders as they set out their guidance and policies; the COVID-19 UK Funder Guidance section of the RIS website is revised on a daily basis to help the research community find the information they need. This information is cascaded to the University’s research community weekly. To recap on what we do know:

  • UKRI have extended all open call deadlines and are offering no-cost extensions of up to six months. They have also recently announced that all new award start dates can be delayed by up to six months.
  • The Wellcome Trust are providing up to six months additional funding to cover staff costs and PGR stipends on projects due to end in 2020. 
  • No-cost extensions are available from all major UK funders and the University encourages grant holders to be flexible and make the most of any grace periods offered. This includes extending start dates and reprofiling grant budgets to mitigate the effect of no-cost extensions. 
  • The charity sector has been particularly affected by a reduction in income due to COVID-19.  Many charity funders including Cancer Research UK (CRUK) have postponed their funding calls. CRUK have also delayed spring funding decisions until the autumn and are making strategic decisions about cutting funding to current grants. They are taking this approach in order to limit the damage on the community and make provisions that will secure the long-term sustainability of the UK cancer research eco-system.

Support for Early Career Researchers (ECRs)

The pause in campus-based research activity is of course having a significant effect on the ability of many of our Postdoctoral Research Assistants (PDRAs) to conduct their research. 

For many weeks there was a lack of clarity from Government and funders on the applicability of the Government’s furlough scheme for this community.  However, we have now been able to apply for this scheme for those funded by charities, business and now UKRI.

It is also worth noting that Organisational Development and Professional Learning have made various online courses and support tools available to ECRs to help support their professional development. 

Support for Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs)

Through communications, and contact from supervisors, we have been encouraging postgraduate researchers to continue working from home where possible and flag any impacts on their research in GRAD.

Following the move by UKRI and Wellcome Trust, we have also recently announced support from the University for University-funded final year PGRs who may need an extension to their studies. Additional details about available support can be found in the email sent to PGRs from myself and Professor Claire Honess on 7 May. We are now working with the major funders to understand any further support that may be given to those PGRs in earlier years of their studies, making the case that our PGRs are our future research leaders and we need help from Government to ensure we support this key group of researchers.

It has been a priority of ours to ensure that there have been frequent communications from the Doctoral College, too – please refer to their regular newsletters for sources of support, online training and events, and good news stories.  

Alongside this, a PGR-specific FAQs section of the Coronavirus website has been set up and Claire Honess and I have met with the PRG Representatives Forum with LUU.

Finally, the regulations around the conduct of vivas were revised swiftly at the start of the process of moving off campus. This allowed vivas to be conducted online, with over 100 taking place to date. 

Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 

In March the UK funding bodies’ REF Team announced that the REF2021 submission deadline of 27 November 2020 no longer applied. 

In order to make allowance for the impact of COVID-19, they also confirmed that:

  • there would be at least eight months’ notice of the new deadline;
  • the staff census date of 31 July 2020 would remain;
  • adaptations of the REF would be subject to light touch consultation with the sector and;
  • sub-panel member recruitment would remain open until further notice.

It has been announced today that the new REF submission will be 31 March 2021.

Continuing to support Interdisciplinary Research Development Programme 

Even in these times when most of us are working from home, we are continuing to establish a number of interdisciplinary online seminar series. 

The aim is to maintain momentum on interdisciplinary research, encourage innovation, and maintain our readiness to seize opportunities for external funding, engagement with government and business, and policy impact. 

Groups include the Net Zero Research Forum, Rethinking value in post-crisis economy and society, and Planetary Health, among others. 

We aim to add further groups over the coming months and anticipate that these groups will generate big ideas for the launch of the Frontiers Institute in due course.

Looking to the future

Rest assured that we are working to enable a safe return to campus for our research activities. 

We aim to enable research on campus to resume as quickly as possible and are initially working across the five faculties that have identified access to research laboratories and facilities as being of immediate importance – Arts, Humanities and Cultures, Biological Sciences, Engineering and Physical Sciences, Environment and Medicine and Health.  

This process will be carefully managed to ensure the safety of all staff and students involved.  

Staff and postgraduate researchers should continue to work from home where possible and should not come to campus unless requested or advised to.  

Phasing of access to laboratories and facilities on the campus will allow us to manage the risks more easily and to learn from experience as the re-opening of additional facilities progresses.  

The order in which facilities re-open is being determined by a Research Re-Entry Working Group through an assessment of research priorities by the Executive Deans and Pro-Deans (Research and Innovation) co-ordinated by Ceri Williams, Director of Research and Innovation Development in partnership with Facilities Directorate and Wellbeing, Safety and Health.  

Initial prioritisation will take account of criteria such as the need to complete work on grants ending in the next 12 months, research activity where there is a contractual obligation, PhD research where there is no scope for costed extensions and where laboratory access is essential for completion of the PhD studies, and so on. We will also take into account an assessment of the feasibility of opening a facility. 

Faculties are determining the phasing of the re-opening of laboratories in discussion with heads of schools and directors of research and innovation. This has established the initial pilot research areas in each faculty that can be mobilised quickly. 

The work to date will enable some pilot research laboratories and facilities to re-open in the second half of June. Further phasing will then occur through the summer, and we hope to re-open all on-campus research laboratories and facilities by the end of September. 

I appreciate these are particularly trying times, but in spite of the numerous difficulties we currently face, the University has continued to be active, both with research work that has been conducted remotely, and particularly in our contributions to action around COVID-19

It has been incredibly inspiring to see innovative and collaborative research coming forward that aims to tackle the immediate crisis the world is facing. Several researchers have also been assisting the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) and its working groups.

Again, I want to applaud all of your hard work and express my thanks to all that have been contributing to this effort in so many different ways. 

Professor Lisa Roberts

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation)

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