Viewpoint: Update from UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive Ottoline Leyser

Students in lecture

UKRI Chief Executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser provides an update on the research and innovation community’s extraordinary response to the pandemic and the year ahead.

Throughout the last year, the UK’s research and innovation community responded superbly to the pandemic.

Researchers and innovators pivoted to address its impacts directly, administrators adapted quickly to working remotely to keep the system running, cleaners added extra shifts to keep buildings open and as COVID-safe as possible.

We all hoped that by this year, things would be better.

But as we start 2021, we find ourselves in another lockdown, adding further stress to a system already under immense pressure.

The pandemic continues to have an enormous impact on the personal and professional lives of staff and students right across the research and innovation community.

Many are juggling caring responsibilities and adjusting to home schooling. Some will be feeling isolated by the need to stay at home. And some will have lost friends, family or colleagues to the virus.

These things all impact on work life and add to the challenges of restricted access to facilities, new working patterns and the need to adapt to all the measures that have been introduced to slow the spread of the virus.

Extraordinary response

Throughout all of this, I have been so inspired by the extraordinary response of our community. Not only have we made many vital contributions to tackling the pandemic and its societal and economic consequences, but through all the many stresses we are facing, I have seen so many acts of kindness and support for colleagues.

This was equally true of my experiences at the start of the pandemic in the institute where I worked in Cambridge, and now at UKRI.

These extraordinary people right across our community, working under great pressure and with such compassion, are our strength and hope for the future.

Research and innovation are central as we continue to address the challenges of the pandemic and the vulnerabilities it has exposed. And they will be essential in rebuilding a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable economy for the UK.

Stewarding the system

UKRI, as the major public funder of research and innovation, has a central role to play in supporting and stewarding a system that delivers on these goals.

This requires us to think about the whole system, which consists of many interdependent parts. Research and innovation are inherently uncertain activities that depend on a complex ecosystem of diverse ideas, skills, people and infrastructures.

UKRI’s job is to engage deeply with people right across this landscape to understand the challenges people are facing, and the connections between them, and then to act to support the system as best we can. This is even more crucial in the unprecedented circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Difficult decisions

I would like to express my deep gratitude for the advice and support of the community in helping UKRI to make the best decisions we can, given the significant constraints under which we are operating.

We are continuously balancing competing needs, often in a rapidly changing landscape. We will not always get it right and I am profoundly grateful to the many people who have taken the time, which is such a precious resource just now, to help us. The suggestions we receive are invaluable, even though, indeed especially though, they are impossible to reconcile.

The longer the crisis continues, the more difficult the choices become, with limited resources and flexibility available both to address the needs of the community and to gather and process the information required to support the decisions we must make.

Work continues to mitigate impact

Significant work and investment to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on currently funded projects and people continues.

As well as the additional funding calls we have run to address the pandemic, our regular funding calls are seeing exceptionally high levels of demand, with obvious implications on workload for applicants, research offices, business administrators, UKRI staff and the many peer reviewers and panel members on whom the system depends.

With respect to new calls for funding, we are reviewing timelines on a call-by-call basis.  Across our councils we aim to organise call and competition deadlines with careful consideration of the many pressures on applicants and professional services staff.

The pandemic makes this more difficult given the increased pressures in the system, the increased number of calls and the increased demand across calls. We encourage people to let us know when they feel that the timeline for a UKRI activity or call needs to be reviewed. 

We recognise this is a hugely uncertain time for research and innovation organisations.  The current UK restrictions may further affect higher education institutions’ (HEI) Research Excellence Framework (REF) submission preparations.

The UK funding bodies’ REF team continues to engage in contingency planning. Whilst no new changes to the exercise have been made at this stage, this is being kept under close review.

This includes situations where the new national restrictions or significantly worsened rates of infection may result in individual HEIs being unable to meet the submission deadline.

We are also approaching our annual research outcomes data collection period. Data remain vital in supporting the case for sustained investment in research and innovation, and they will also help us to understand the impacts of the pandemic on the system.

We will be asking researchers to make submissions to researchfish again this year, but we will be writing to award holders outlining the steps to take if the pandemic means that they cannot report in the normal way. For students, researchfish submissions this year will be entirely voluntary.

This remains a tremendously challenging time for doctoral students and everyone who supports them. Many people are particularly concerned, and indeed some are angry, about our allocation of £20 million to support students at earlier stages in their research, compared to the £40 million we provided for students close to their thesis submission deadline during the first lockdown last year.

Not only does this mean that there is not enough money to support all students, but it also requires a significant amount of work by HEIs to put in place processes to allocate the money to those most in need.

These processes are now in train, and HEIs are working to make decisions as soon as possible.

In making these extremely difficult decisions, we have tried to balance the immediate needs of all current students against those of early career researchers, technicians and PIs, as well as students’ future needs.

We continue to listen and respond carefully to all the concerns expressed about this decision, especially as the situation evolves, alongside the many other competing petitions we are receiving from our community, highlighting the extreme pressures being felt right across the system.

The year ahead

It is important to note that all these requests for support involve financial commitments into future years, for which we do not currently have a budget. The 2021/22 financial year is likely to be particularly challenging due to unusually high existing commitments including COVID-related projects and the redistribution of spending into next year as a result of COVID-related delays to current projects.

In addition, there will be significant challenges in responding to the reduction in official development assistance.  This makes it particularly difficult to commit new funding for next year.

As a community, it is important we acknowledge that despite the intense pressure we are all under, there are many across the UK for whom the pandemic has been even more destructive.

In the autumn, the Chancellor announced an overall increase in public investment in research and development to £14.6 billion in 2021-22, which, in the wider economic context, is a strong signal of commitment to a research and innovation-led recovery.

Productive discussions continue with government on the allocations UKRI will receive from the announcements made in the spending review. We are working in close collaboration with government, universities, and innovative businesses, to build the detailed plans for this investment.

Embedded across our work is our commitment to change the conversation about equality, diversity and inclusion in research and innovation.

We must ensure that everything we do recognises and supports the need to bring a diversity of people with a wide range of approaches and experiences into the research and innovation system and to build a culture in which everyone is respected and valued, whoever they are and wherever they work in the system.

Our goal remains to work collaboratively to transform the sector, partnering with others to catalyse, change and co-create a thriving, inclusive, creative system.

Closely aligned with this work, it is vital that we shift research and innovation so that they become a shared endeavour across society, where those with a stake can easily challenge, access and contribute.

This year, UKRI will be working across our community to understand the challenges of wider engagement so that we can involve more diverse groups of people and perspectives. We will open up the processes of research and innovation, and open up the discussions about our priorities in new ways.

International collaboration and COP26

The deal between the UK and the EU was extremely welcome news at the end of last year with the strong consensus in the community about the value of deep partnership in research and innovation reflected in the agreement on association to the Horizon Europe, Euratom and Copernicus programmes.

There is more work to be done to understand the full detail of how the UK will participate.

We will continue to work with the community to support international collaboration, including building on the long-standing relationships we have with European and global colleagues.

One area where close international collaboration is so pressing is climate change. In November, the UK will host the COP26 in Glasgow. With decades of outstanding research and innovation in this field, the UK will be in a strong position to advocate for strengthened global commitments to address this urgent crisis.

As we begin 2021, we are looking forward to a year when we can work together to strengthen our system, supporting the people and ideas needed to ensure that the transformative power of research and innovation can be brought to bear on local, national and global challenges, now and in the future.

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