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Science minister tells universities to carry on with research

Image: Number 10 [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Amanda Solloway says a cross-departmental team will ‘consider what measures are necessary to support’ researchers

Science minister Amanda Solloway has written to UK universities and other research institutions urging them to protect “critical” science and research activity during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the letter, dated 23 March, the minister encouraged institutions to continue science and research programmes “where it is possible”.

In particular, she urged universities to look to protect science and research “which is considered to be of critical urgency or importance”. This “may be for medical reasons or for reasons of national security”, she said.

Institutions should also protect science, research or technical work “where the pausing of activity is either not possible or would severely impede research delivery”, she added. This could include “very long-term experiments or projects where the time frequency of observation is critical”.

Finally, she called on them to protect science, research or technical work which requires ongoing maintenance and supervision, including for reasons of “regulatory, legal or health and safety or other on-going requirements”.

“For example, this would include the care of living specimens, including animals, plants and bacterial cultures,” she continued. “It may also include research which makes use of hazardous materials or which involves the regular maintenance of key equipment or facilities.”

Addressing concerns about the delivery of projects and employment rights, she said she was “sure that universities and research institutions will provide continued and meaningful assurance to their staff on this matter”.

In addition, Solloway announced that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had established a joint team involving UK Research and Innovation, the Department for Education and other government departments and agencies “to consider what measures are necessary to support universities, the research community and research institutions”.

“I will be asking officials in BEIS and UKRI to work with the research sector on how we can collectively respond to the immediate and longer-term challenges arising as a result of Covid-19,” she said.

Meanwhile, Research England and the devolved funding bodies have contacted the vice-chancellors or principals of UK higher education institutions asking them to identify a “principal point of contact…through whom requests and updates relating to research and knowledge exchange matters relevant to the Covid-19 outbreak can be addressed”.

The news comes as the next iteration of the Research Excellence Framework— the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, which was due to take place in 2021—has been postponed.

“The submission deadline on 27 November 2020 will no longer apply, and we will announce a new submission deadline no later than eight months prior to the deadline,” REF director wrote on 24 March.

James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute and a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, told Research Professional News that Solloway’s letter was “positive and helpful”.

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect instant answers to the myriad questions that are raised by the current crisis for the UK research system—as for every other aspect of our economy and society,” he said. “But a one-year delay to the timetable for REF 2021, which was set to enter its most intensive phase over the next few months, does seem like a sensible move, as this would at a stroke ease one major source of pressure and anxiety within the system.”

“The existing quality-related funding allocations could be rolled over for an extra year, and the whole exercise pushed back by 12 months, to allow universities and researchers some much-needed breathing space to cope with more immediate and urgent priorities.”