Blog: Supporting the research sector in response to COVID-19

23rd Jul 2020

Last month we wrote to the UK Government’s Science Minister on the impact that the Coronavirus has had on UK neuroscience, for instance that large numbers of researchers could leave neuroscience altogether. 

We have since received a response from the Science Minister outlining measures her department are taking to mitigate the impact of Coronavirus.  Here, Joseph Clift (BNA Head of Policy and Campaigns) examines the contents of her response, and puts it in context of several important announcements aimed at supporting the research base.

Since we wrote to the Science Minister last month, we’ve seen several important announcements aimed at supporting the UK’s research base – both in response to current funding shortfalls, and with an eye on future years of funding.

Government responses

On 27 June, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced a University research support package, making around £280m available to provide funded extensions to UKRI-funded projects. The funding includes support for researchers’ salaries and other research costs, such as laboratory equipment and fieldwork. This is a much-needed boost to neuroscience projects funded by research councils that have been affected the last few months, and provides the support the BNA had requested research councils provide when we wrote to them in April.   

This was followed a few days later by BEIS announcing a UK Research and Development Roadmap, which is exploring how the UK Government can meet its commitment to increase public R&D funding to £22bn per year by 2024/25 – from providing “long-term flexible investment into infrastructure and institutions” to looking at ways to better “fund and assess discovery and applied research.” Part of the latter will involve creating a new independent funding body, modelled on the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US, which could provide new funding opportunities for neuroscientists working in potentially transformational areas of research.

We have also made enquiries in the devolved nations on how devolved governments have responded to the need for additional support to researchers impacted by the pause to their work. Within Scotland, for example, the Scottish Government has indicated it is providing funded and no-cost extensions for research projects funded by the Chief Scientist Office.  

While the announcements above are welcome, they only go part of the way towards helping researchers that had to stop vital research, and who need not only help to restore that work but also provide reassurance that there will continue to be funding opportunities in the years to come.

Challenges for research charities

In the response that we received to our letter last month, UK Science Minister Amanda Solloway highlighted that in addition to the above research-active universities will be able to also use a system of loans and grants from the autumn to “cover up to 80% of their income losses caused by any actual decline in international students, capped at their level of non-publicly funded research.”

However, universities’ future level of non-publicly funded research is itself facing its challenges.

This is highlighted by the Association of Medical Research Charities, whose members estimate a £252-£368 million shortfall in their collective research spend over the next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – an average 41% decrease for each charity. With a number of charity funders playing a vital role in funding neuroscience research, this would have a major impact on upcoming funding opportunities within neuroscience. Charities are calling for a Life Sciences-Charity Partnership to help bridge the gap in funding and enable them to maintain research funding as planned for the next three years.

Support for neuroscience research

Some of the most concerning findings from our recent survey of researchers were around their outlook on the immediate future – over half not expecting to be able to start any new research projects until next year at the earliest, and nearly a third considering leaving neuroscience research. We will continue to make the case for additional support for UK neuroscience so that researchers have confidence that the UK continues to offer opportunities and support for neuroscience research. This includes helping to restore research paused by the pandemic, and ensuring that across the UK there continues to be funding streams that neuroscientists can access.

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Impact of COVID-19 on charities funding neuroscience research

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has compiled a really helpful resource on the response of the charity sector to researchers impacted by COVID-19 restrictions and key guidance on funding. We have reproduced this in the table below for organisations funding neuroscience research – please visit the AMRC page for the most up-to-date information. 

Organisation Estimated impact on available funding   Comment/Guidance Summary of response
Alzheimer's Research UK

- Expecting drop of 45% income

- Some planned projects – including some fundraising events, awareness campaigns and policy work – have paused.

Position statement for researchers

- All applications currently under review will be discussed at the charity's Grant Review Board meeting in January 2021.

- Currently plan to open new rounds for funding in the autumn.

- Any disruptions to research funding activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be taken into consideration when assessing researchers' record of outputs, research achievements, and career progression.

Alzheimer's Society

- Expecting loss of income, up to £45 million this financial year.

Managing the impact of Coronavirus on grants

- Contingency plans being developed to support research completion.

- Flexibility with no-cost extensions, underspend and virements.

- Clinicians returning to frontline to have salaries covered by NHS.

- Cost extensions considered case by case at end date of projects.
British Heart Foundation - Budget for new research investment falling from £100m to around £50m this year Statement on Coronavirus and research grants

- If research institutions shut down for a period of time, BHF will continue to pay the salaries of staff funded on grants for the same duration.

- If clinical research staff funded on grants are asked to support front line NHS staff, BHF will also continue to pay salaries, recognising that these costs may be subsequently recoverable from the NHS.

- Prepared to support requests for no cost extensions to grants to cover any delays caused by the suspension of research.

- If suspension of research is prolonged and costed extensions are required BHF will consider requests on a case by case basis.
Epilepsy Research UK - Commitments to 2020 and 2021 annual grant rounds safeguarded. 

- Committed funds to capacity-building activities such as the development of PhD Hubs and Expert Workshop programme.
Grant round update - July

- Adapted research funding this year in response to COVID-19

- Focusing grant round on building capacity, by supporting early-career scientists to develop into epilepsy research leaders through ERUK Emerging Leader Fellowship Awards.

- collaborating with Young Epilepsy to offer a jointly funded Fellowship aiming to improve epilepsy treatment for children and young people.
Parkinson’s Research UK

- Protecting 2020 research budget.

Protecting the future of research after coronavirus (COVID-19) - Will use reserves to make up the shortfall in income, and ensure that ongoing research isn’t affected
- Warns this is not a sustainable long-term solution.
The Stroke Association   Research Awards and COVID-19 Arrangements

- Will review any extension requests on a case-by-case basis and will work with researchers to agree a solution at the appropriate time.

- Researchers asked to explore alternative solutions such as remote working, teleconference meetings or re-ordering parts of their study.

- For grants which are in the early stages or have an appropriate stop point, grant holders can delay recruitment of staff or put the award into abeyance for a period.
Versus Arthritis   COVID-19 - Message from Stephen Simpson, Director of Research, Versus Arthritis 

- Will support any local decision to move research personnel to front line duties and will work with teams after the crisis to explore ways for research projects to be reinstated.

- Recommend that any clinical research that has been recently award but not yet started, delay the start date to adjust to the possibility of not being able to recruit.

- Will be flexible on the use of underspend and budget virements to cover any exceptional and additional cost incurred by COVID-19 to keep research activities going.

- Will offer no-cost extensions to awards if needed. 

- Where costed extensions are necessary, these will be considered on a case by case basis as required.

- Current open calls and any future planned activity, including planned peer review of active calls will be paused.


  Coronavirus (COVID-19): information for grant applicants and grantholders 

- Funding schemes and calls remain open for applications. 

- Will pay salary and running costs in some situations if researchers are called to the front line.  

- For other affected grants will consider extension or supplements. 

Please note: information sourced from AMRC and correct at time of this blog

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