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UKRI defends its support for PhD students during Covid-19

Image: John Walker [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Funder says it has ‘finite funds’ and has to ‘make difficult decisions’ about support

UK Research and Innovation has warned that any further financial support for PhD students whose work has been negatively affected by the pandemic could constrain its ability to fund new projects.

UKRI has been facing a backlash from students and researchers after it “strongly” advised most students it funds to adjust their projects so they could complete their research on time despite delays caused by the pandemic.

The funder said it would make £19 million available, but only to support doctoral students who found it “most difficult to adjust their project and training plan”. This is in addition to the £44m the funder provided earlier in the year for extensions for final-year students.

In an open letter published in November, more than 1,100 members of Peer Review Colleges or Advisory Councils of UKRI research councils, as well as staff responsible for PhD programmes and supervisors of UKRI-funded research students, urged UKRI to “revisit this decision with the view to providing greater support to emerging researchers who have had their research disrupted”.

But in a response to the letter published on 4 December, UKRI’s director of talent and skills Rory Duncan said there were “finite funds available” and that “the decisions we make involve commitments into future years”.

“This means our decisions now not only impact current R&D budgets, but they constrain our ability to fund new projects and support the PhD students and research teams of the future,” he said.

He added that UKRI had “tried to balance a range of factors” in developing its policy to support current PhD students, including the shorter- and longer-term needs of current students, as well as the opportunity for future PhD students, the needs of postdoctoral researchers, technicians, and the wider research and innovation system.

“Across UKRI we have therefore developed a portfolio of interventions including over £60m additional funding for doctoral students, £180m in costed extensions for research grants, £334m support for innovative businesses, and wider stabilisation measures for the system so that we can support careers and prospects as best we can,” Duncan wrote.

“Given these circumstances, we have to make difficult decisions about the support we can provide to students.”