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‘We haven’t closed shop’, says South Africa’s NRF

Image: Pernillan [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Funder says it won’t leave researchers hanging as SA goes into lockdown

From Friday this week, as South Africa goes into a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, the country’s main research funder says it is ready to support its grantees and applicants.

Grant proposals will be received and vetted during the crisis, and grant managers will be contactable via email or telephone, says Beverley Damonse, head of the National Research Foundation’s science engagement and corporate relations group.

“We’re trying as far as possible to have a high level of business continuity. For us it’s working from home, not shutdown as in no access. We will try to facilitate any questions and anxieties that may arise. The message is that we haven’t closed shop,” she says.  

From Friday all South Africans except those providing essential goods and services will be required to stay in their homes for 21 days. 

Most NRF staff are able to work remotely, Damonse says. At the moment, the NRF is busy with the end of its financial year  on 31 March. This can be done remotely, says Damonse, and many NRF-funded researchers and projects had already submitted their reports for this purpose.

The funder has also given researchers an extra month to respond to calls for proposals whose original deadline fell at the end of this month. This is to allow researchers who might be working from home to obtain the necessary details from their institutional research offices, which may also be experiencing disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic, Damonse says. “It’s a bit of a chain.” 

The proposals, which are for funding that would be paid out next year, will be assessed virtually in a first for some types of grants. In the past, some postgraduate funding has been assessed remotely, she says, but several grants would have involved in-person meetings between assessors. “It’s going to result in some innovations in the business,” says Damonse. 

Her message to grantholders struggling to complete research and related activities like travel planned for this year is to keep in touch with the NRF. Some travel funding might be reallocated to later in the year, she says, and unused grant funding could potentially be carried over. 

But she emphasises that any repurposing of grant money needs to be discussed with the NRF. “If a research proposal was funded along a particular research plan, deviations from that plan would be quite problematic,” she says. “[Researchers] have to stay in touch very carefully with their grant management. There will be someone on the other end of an email for sure.”

National facilities scale down

However, work at NRF-funded national research facilities, such as its telescopes, will be disrupted by the coronavirus restrictions, Damonse says. Those needing to remain operational will allow only a minimum complement of people on site.

“We must understand that as we move towards national lockdown, that will affect research operations at the national facility sites,” she says. 

A skeleton staff of essential personnel will be allowed to remain at sites like telescopes. Where research data can be collected remotely, data analysis will continue, says Damonse. But where researchers need to collect data in person, those activities will cease. 

IThemba labs in Cape Town, which produces medical isotopes for the national and international markets used for cancer treatment, will now focus only on local needs, according to Damonse: “They will try to feed the national market for as long as possible.”