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Universities urged to lead their own response to coronavirus

UKRI pledges support, but says its priority lies with government and keeping internal operations functional

Universities and research institutions are best placed to make their own decisions about how their operations run during the coronavirus crisis, UK Research and Innovation leaders have advised, amid growing concerns over the potential impact on research.

It follows a letter from Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, to UKRI on 18 March to request further support for the UK’s research workforce from the disruption caused by the response to the Covid-19 virus threat.

Writing to Sir Mark Walport and Sir John Kingman, chief executive and non-executive chair of UKRI respectively, the Russell Group leader asked that they “urgently prioritise the needs” of the higher education workforce.

In their response on 19 March, Kingman and Walport offered assurances that the funding body was “committed to working closely and at pace with [universities] and with the government to understand and respond to the impacts of Covid-19 and find the best solutions,” but that their “immediate priority” had been “business continuity to ensure that UKRI continues to operate”.

Another priority had been to support government at this time, they said, adding: “As we look at wider priorities, we will support the sector in ensuring that facilities of critical urgency or importance are protected, whether relating to the current crisis, national security or other considerations.”

To this end, Walport and Kingman say that higher education leaders should take matters into their own hands, stating: “We are clear that decisions about what can be stopped or paused will be best made by universities and research institutes themselves.”

“We recognise the potential impact of these decisions and are working closely with government and other funders to understand what measures are necessary to support the research community during this very difficult time, to ensure we protect the capacity of our world-leading R&D system for the longer term,” the letter concluded.

UKRI has also acknowledged that existing funding grants are likely to be disrupted as a consequence of workforce pressures during the virus outbreak. “We will work with the many institutions affected to understand the full extent of the issues and we will discuss these with the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and other government departments,” a recent statement read.

Earlier this week, MPs joined calls for the Research Excellence Framework to be pushed back a year in light of the current disruption. REF leader Kim Hackett said that contingency plans were currently in place, but that there were “no plans” to cancel the assessment exercise as yet.