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Opportunity profile: Last orders for UKRI’s Covid-19 rolling call

 Image: JiahuiH [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

What UKRI is looking for from the final bids to its multidisciplinary call

Top tips

  • Aim for impact within the lifetime of the grant.
  • Show connections to non-academic partners who can help you achieve impact.
  • Take into account research that has already been funded by UKRI in this area.
  • Collaborate: single research groups are unlikely to be successful.

As the country was struggling with the first wave of the coronavirus at the end of March, UK Research and Innovation launched a multidisciplinary rolling call for ideas to address the pandemic. The funder has now said that this will start winding down at the end of the year.

As announced on 29 October, a final deadline for business-led applications has been set for 9 December and the deadline for research applications is 15 December. UKRI is advising any applicants to the scheme to get their bids in as soon as possible, to avoid a late surge in applications.

Unless they are urgent, bids received close to the deadline will have to wait until January for review, the funder says.

After the deadline, Covid-related funding will still be available via UKRI’s constituent research councils and their standard grant schemes, seed funding for urgent applications and future strategic Covid-related calls.

Charlotte Deane, Covid-19 response director at UKRI, lays out what the funder is looking for in the last batch of bids to the rolling call.

Are you looking for bids tackling any particular questions before the rolling call closes?

Our priority areas have been refreshed, but I want to stress that the items there are not exhaustive. One of the reasons to have an open call is to say to researchers that if you’ve seen something important and it fits this call, please send it in.

With that caveat, are there particular areas you are keen to develop?

Yes, one is around deepening understanding of the virus itself. Ethics is also a growing consideration. A lot of what is being proposed now, be it from a medical or engineering standpoint, for example, will have an impact on how we expect people to live or on behaviour. So the research community should build that ethical element into proposals.

What else will you be looking for in bids that arrive over the next six weeks?

It will be important for researchers to explain why they need to do this research now. We are in the middle of a pandemic—it’s slightly harder to do certain things—but the research supported by this call needs to have real impact in a relatively short period of time, preferably within the lifetime of the grant. This scheme is not for things that will have impact in 5 to 10 years’ time. There are other mechanisms for funding that work. The rolling call looks to launch those projects that can make a difference now. Applicants should ask themselves how they will connect up to a system, be it industry or government or the NHS or maybe schools, so their work can have that impact in the relatively short term. Another good question to ask is: How do I make sure this won’t just be a paper?

Are there any important aspects now that might have been less important in earlier bids?

We’re taking a portfolio research approach and applicants should certainly look at the research that is ongoing. That doesn’t mean researchers can’t apply in the same area as other projects, but you must be linked up to those research environments or show why you are additive to the research that’s ongoing. We’ve seen researchers putting in genuinely good research ideas that we’ve turned down because we’ve already funded something very close. We’ve created a topic maps tool to make searching for relevant projects as easy as possible. Feel free to contact us about that as well.

What else might be different for those applying now?

When this call first started, we didn’t know very much at all about the virus, so proposals could legitimately say they just wanted to research the basics. Now there’s a body of Covid-19 research literature and proposals should be grounded in the existing evidence and be able to build on it.

Do you have any comments on the size of bids submitted so far?

Overall, the size of bids has been appropriate for the scheme. We are seeing more collaborative grants and I would like to encourage that development. Many projects will tackle a problem that will not be well suited to a single research group.

Could you give an example?

We recently awarded a grant for a project called Track, to simulate infection risk on public transport. This involves several groups at the University of Leeds with researchers from Newcastle, Manchester, Cambridge and Imperial, with the involvement of the Department for Transport and Public Health England. What made that bid so powerful was that such a problem requires virologists and mathematical modellers, as well as scientists measuring air particles, and all those elements were there. The research was also connected to the Department for Transport so it can have a direct impact on what is done within the transport system. If you’re going to try to solve such a major problem, get your community together to solve it and bid like that. 

What is the call’s success rate?

The success rate is relatively low, at around 10 per cent, but I think that’s probably quite a good level for such a scheme. We’ve opened a scheme up to all researchers working from every angle on some really difficult questions, and we have that portfolio approach on top. Under such circumstances, I don’t think that’s a bad percentage.

Do you have any advice for those considering a bid but whose research doesn’t have the urgency required for this scheme?

If researchers have strong ideas for Covid-19 research that are longer term in impact than with this scheme, they should apply to the standard mechanisms of the councils. This is obviously a priority area for research. My advice would be not to wait till the rolling call comes to an end and then apply—do it now.

What are your feelings now this call is coming to a close?

I truly want to thank the whole research community who have contributed in some way. Not just those who have worked on bids but all of those who have peer reviewed for us—often at speed—or have sat on panels. This has been a massive community effort and I’m grateful. In fact, one of the reasons why we’re closing the rolling call is because we can’t keep working like that forever—it’s unsustainable. The priority now is to get Covid-19 research embedded in the work of the councils, and we need to start that process rapidly.