UKRI chief: ‘The longer the crisis continues, the more difficult the choices become’

There are “limited resources and flexibility available” to address the needs of the research community, Dame Prof Ottoline Leyser said

The chief executive of the organisation responsible for distributing billions of pounds in research funding says she faces “difficult choices” about how to steward the UK’s research sector, as the effect of “limited resources and flexibility” begins to bite.

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) today released a statement addressing the “competing needs” she, and the organisation, face as the pandemic rages. “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,” she told those in the research sector.

Dame Ottoline said the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) was still under “close review”, although “no new changes to the exercise have been made at this stage”. The REF team is reportedly preparing for a situation where universities cannot meet this vital funding deadline.

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
– Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, UKRI

She said new funding calls were reviewed “on a call-by-call basis” with “careful consideration of the many pressures on applicants and professional services staff”, but doing so was difficult “given the increased pressures in the system, the increased number of calls and the increased demand across calls”. She said the UKRI and its research councils were not only funding new calls, often relating to aspects of research relating to the coronavirus pandemic, but handling “exceptionally high levels of demand” for regular funding calls. This workload was taking a toll on “applicants, research offices, business administrators, UKRI staff and the many peer reviewers and panel members on whom the system depends,” Dame Ottoline said.

The UKRI chief reflected on the “anger” her decision on early career researchers fomented last November.

Over 1127 academics, including 250 members of peer review councils, signed an open letter that slammed UKRI’s decision not to extend deadlines or funding to PhD students, who “suffered sustained disruption, from preparation to data collection and analysis to writing up”. UKRI acknowledged in a report that 77% of those not in the final year require extensions. The open letter decried the UKRI’s lack of consultation – “a stakeholder consultation involving just 58 students (of over 25,000 UKRI funded and more than 100,000 PhD students in the UK) is clearly inadequate.”

The University and College Union (UCU) said the decision would “hit those from less affluent backgrounds hardest and could lead to more academics from marginalised groups leaving the sector”.

Two months on, Dame Ottoline said: “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.”

Dame Ottoline said the year ahead would be “particularly challenging” because UKRI was handling “unusually high existing commitments”, including Covid-related projects, and the redistribution of spending “as a result of Covid-related delays to current projects”. UKRI will also lose money after the government cut official development assistance, which will affect the global challenges research fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund.

She added that requests for support, like the ones laid out in the open letter on doctoral students, “involve financial commitments into future years, for which we do not currently have a budget”.

Dame Ottoline said the the government commitment to increase public investment in research and development to £14.6 billion in 2021-22 “is a strong signal of commitment”, adding that UKRI was having “productive discussions” with the Treasury about what money it will receive from the uplift in research funding.


Read more: ‘All PhD students failed’ by UKRI’s refusal to give extensions to those affected by Covid-19

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