Support through the pandemic: is enough being provided to researchers?

23rd Nov 2020


UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) recently announced the results of its review into support for PhD students impacted by COVID-19. It announced an additional £19 million of funding for doctoral students, primarily for those students who are due to finish on or before 30 September 2021, or for students with ongoing support needs. For other PhD students funded by UKRI or the Research Councils, UKRI advises their projects are adjusted to enable them to complete “a doctoral-level qualification within their funded period”.

The BNA is interested in how funders are supporting researchers at all stages of their career during this challenging time, and in hearing whether the support being provided is reaching those that need it – head to the bottom of this page for information on how to get in touch with us on this.

How has this announcement on PhD support been viewed?

The announcement has received widespread criticism from the research sector. An open letter to UKRI, signed by over 770 researchers, particularly highlighted the challenge for students midway through their PhD, where primary data gathering may already be underway.  A petition to extend UKRI’s support to first- and second-year PhD students has already received over 7,000 signatures.  

At the BNA we are also concerned by UKRI’s recent announcement.  At the start of the first lockdown, the BNA wrote to funders to request that costed extensions be provided for neuroscience researchers impacted by the pandemic. We had been encouraged that the university research support package announced by the UK Government in June would go some way towards ensuring research projects could be restored following lockdown.  This announcement describing only limited support, offering reassurance to some but by no means all researchers, is very disappointing.

How many neuroscience PhD students does the URKI announcment affect?

Probably 20-30% of neuroscience PhD students.

If you’re doing a PhD in neuroscience in the UK, there are a variety of ways this may be funded – including via university funds, charities, industry, your own funds, and other sources. Research Council funding is a key part of this: past analyses have suggested this covers 15% of all PhDs in the UK for all disciplines, while in the BNA’s COVID-19 impact survey earlier this year, 29% of the 111 postgraduates that took part were primarily Research Council funded – the largest funder type of those surveyed.

What about non-UKRI funded PhDs?

How UKRI supports researchers in this challenging time is also relevant for those funded by other sources too, not just those directly funded by Research Councils, as other funders may look to UKRI’s response to inform their own decisions over additional support they may provide.

Impacts on people as well as projects

We know from our own survey during lockdown that neuroscience researchers have a number of concerns about the impacts on their work, careers, and own health and wellbeing. Over two-thirds of all respondents were concerned about how their own mental wellbeing will impact their ability to return their research to pre-lockdown levels – for postgraduate respondents, this was over three-quarters. Within UKRI’s surveys of PhD students, around a third indicated that health and wellbeing were a reason for why they indicated they needed an extension to their project – this was the case for both final year and non-final year students.

Impacts on neuroscience research for years to come

There is also potentially an impact of course on the research itself. Within the BNA’s credibility in neuroscience work we highlight that the research environment and research culture are key factors in ensuring that neuroscience research is made as credible as possible - robust, reliable, replicable, and reproducible. Encouraging substantial changes mid-project may impact negatively on this, particularly if financially driven. For example, we have already had anecdotal reports of researchers being encouraged to reduce n values in order to be able to complete. 

Is COVID-19 support funding getting where it's needed?  

We continue to monitor how neuroscience researchers are being affected by disruptions to their work from the ongoing pandemic.

While support funding has in some areas been made available, we have heard directly from researchers that are have seen requests for this funding be rejected or simply left unanswered months after the request. With the UK Government set to imminently announce its Spending Review, voices across the research sector have called for greater investment in research to help alleviate the pressures faced by the sector.  

To help us continue to represent the neuroscience community, please contact the BNA here with your experience of how the support made available by your research funder is working in practice to enable you to restore your work and plan future research.

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