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Covid-19: UKRI told to set up emergency fund for researchers

Russell Group warns of severe disruption to the careers and training of UK researchers

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities has urged the UK’s largest public funder of research to create an emergency fund during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter addressed to UK Research and Innovation’s chief executive Mark Walport and chair John Kingman, the Russell Group’s chief executive Tim Bradshaw said the pandemic would have an impact on the delivery of research outputs, reporting and other activity.

“But most importantly, it is likely to be severely disruptive to the careers and training of the people who underpin the UK’s research base,” he said.

Bradshaw questioned the effectiveness of measures previously announced by the funder, including a pledge to cover some additional travel costs and allowing no-cost extensions to grants, saying “neither of these responses will be sufficient over the next 12 months”.

In particular, he pointed out that staff on fixed-term contracts funded by UKRI councils, such as early-career researchers and PhD candidates, will be reliant on UKRI funding over the coming months if their research is disrupted and staff are required to go on sick leave or enter self-isolation.

“While our universities are, of course, seeking to support staff and student stipend costs—and indeed already cover the indirect costs of research—given the volume of research activity undertaken by our institutions, our members are unlikely to be able to bridge these gaps on their own, especially as research council funding meets only 72 per cent of full economic costs,” said Bradshaw.

He urged the research funder to launch an emergency fund to cover the salaries of staff, stipends and other research costs during the pandemic.

“This fund could draw on those monies already set aside for R&D by HM Treasury at this month’s budget statement,” he suggested adding that they could be released through the mechanism currently used to distribute quality-related funding.

In the case of the devolved nations, funds could be distributed to institutions directly, or via the relevant funding council.

Research Professional News has approached UKRI for comment.