COVID-19 research crisis: Open letter to funders

2nd Apr 2020

The British Neuroscience Association (BNA) has written an open letter to all major UK funders of neuroscience, urgently requesting costed extensions for all grants, studentships and fellowships.

The open letter, signed by members of the BNA Council and Committee, highlights concerns about the impact of the COVID19 crisis on our research community and an urgent need for support.

It sets out the vital role neuroscience research plays in advancing understanding of a range of brain disorders that contribute to disease worldwide, before appealing for assurances that there will be support to bring research programmes back on track and a request that funders urgently identify funds to cover costed extensions for all grants which have been affected - including, importantly, studentships and fellowships.

Speaking about these concerns, Professor Narender Ramnani, Trustee for Research Policy at the BNA, said: "The BNA wants to do all it can to protect the neuroscience research community from the impact of COVID19. Today, the BNA is appealing to major UK funders of neuroscience research to provide costed extensions to all grants and the resources needed to ensure that incomplete research and training will resume and be completed after the crisis.”

BNA President, Professor Annette Dolphin also commented: "Our priority is to support and advance our members, from students to established academics, ensuring they are able to continue their research and bring benefits to all sectors of society.

"Yet we are also here to listen and respond to the requirements and flexibility of funders. It's by working as one community with a common goal that we will be able to navigate a path through this unprecedented crisis, enabling every scientist to complete their research and evolve their skills, and keep advancing neuroscience for the good of everyone."

Personalised versions of the open letter (below) has been sent to the following organisations: 

  • Alzheimer's Research UK (ARUK)
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • British Academy
  • British Heart Foundation
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Epilepsy Research UK
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • National Centre for the 3Rs (NC3Rs)
  • National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)
  • Parkinson's Disease UK (PDUK)
  • Stroke Association
  • Versus Arthritis
  • Wellcome 

The BNA will continue to advocate on behalf of members and the neursocience community at this difficult time, and keep members informed about ongoing actions over the weeks and months to come. 

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COVID19 Research Crisis: Urgent request for costed extensions for all grants.

Open letter, 2nd April 2020

Dear <organisation contact>,

Disorders of the brain, such as neurological, mental and substance abuse disorders, are major contributors to the burden of disease across the Globe. Neuroscience research is fundamental to both our understanding of such disorders and to the translation of this understanding into new therapies and biomarkers.

However, the COVID-19 crisis has had an unprecedented and severe impact on our research community. We acknowledge that <organisation name> is working hard to understand the problems that have arisen and to find solutions. We and our members are grateful for these efforts. We write this urgent open letter to you to highlight the nature of the impact and to seek your support.

At this stage we write to highlight three immediate problems that have arisen as a result of the abrupt suspension of research activities in universities and research institutions. Across the country, laboratory facilities have been closed, almost all experimental work has ceased, and nearly all Principal Investigators (PIs), postdoctoral researchers and PhD students are working from home. Ongoing time- and cash-limited grants continue to support and retain highly skilled early career scientists, many of whom have had to limit their work to the analysis of existing, often incomplete datasets, and to writing. They are unable to collect data – a core activity on which most research programmes depend. Hence, time and funds are liable to run out before the aims of many grants will have been met.

At this time, PIs need assurances that they will be supported to bring their research programmes back on track. Although under normal circumstances grants are given uncosted extensions to complete work when unforeseen problems arise, the current circumstances are extreme. So we urge funders to urgently identify funds to cover costed extensions for all grants which have been affected, including studentships and fellowships.

We have three reasons for doing so.

  • We are concerned that if the work on ongoing grants is left incomplete because data can’t be collected, core grant objectives will not have been met, and large sums invested prior to the crisis will have been wasted. Comparatively small additional investments will allow data collection objectives to be completed.
     
  • A key objective of many grants is to train early career researchers. The lack of access to laboratory facilities inevitably means that early career researchers will not acquire the practical skills needed to become trained scientists. This will degrade the quality of the UK research base. Costed extensions will allow skilled researchers to complete their training.
     
  • We are concerned that lack of data, and lack of time to write and submit manuscripts to journals and preprint servers, will result in a failure to publish. This will negatively impact the careers of younger PIs, postdoctoral scientists and PhD students. Costed extensions will allow publications to flow from work completed.

Costed extensions would protect the investments of funds already made. We realise the need to reduce administrative burden on funders and PIs, and ask that such extensions are granted automatically, and on the basis of known staffing costs already available to many funders, for the duration that researchers are affected.

We also highlight the catastrophic loss of research materials in many laboratories that rapidly enforced closure is now causing. Anecdotal evidence tells us that forced but necessary laboratory closures are resulting in the loss of essential resources such as rare cell lines and reagents. Ordinarily virement between budgets within a grant would normally give PIs the flexibility to make limited adjustments to accommodate unforeseen circumstances. However, the severity and duration of the current crisis means that this will not be sufficient. For neuroscience in particular the loss of ageing, dementia and/or behavioural models, which can take months or years to develop, will be hard if not impossible to replace. The continuation of many programmes will depend upon replacing lost materials, and we request that costs of research resources and materials are also met.

We understand that funds may be available from resources that have recently been made available for R&D by HM Treasury, as indicated in the recent Budget Statement.

Finally, in relation to future grant rounds, we request that all funders make adjustments to these after consulting with stakeholders. It will be important to show flexibility with grant deadlines, because many PIs have to cope with unprecedented challenges.

We appreciate that funders will have many challenges at this time, and we also recognise that many of your staff will be facing personal challenges also. We want you to know that the BNA will do all that it can to support you in your endeavours to support and protect the UK science base. If there is anything we can do to assist, please let us know.

With best wishes,

BNA Council and Committee

BNA Trustees: Annette Dolphin (President), Rik Henson (President-Elect), Stafford Lightman (Past President), Kevin Cox, Catherine Harmer, Anthony Isles, Zoe Kourtzi, Ros Langston, Anne Lingford-Hughes, Alan Palmer, Narender Ramnani
Hugh Piggins (Council member)
Committee Members: Elizabeth Coulthard, Natalie Doig, Crawford Winlove, Emma Yhnell

Chief Executive: Anne Cooke

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