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Applicants to UKRI Covid-19 rapid response call complain of delays

Researchers say they were left in the lurch for three months, making planning ‘incredibly difficult’

Applicants to UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response call for Covid-19 projects have complained of delays after some researchers waited three months for a verdict on their bids.

In an open letter to the research and innovation community in April, the then chief executive of UK Research and Innovation, Mark Walport, said applications would be acknowledged within 48 hours with “an aim to make decisions within 10 days”.

But Martin Paul Eve, a professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck University of London, said he was left in the lurch for almost three months after submitting a bid to the funder on 15 May.

Together with James Baker, a senior lecturer in digital history and archives at the University of Sussex, Eve had planned to study the impact of the pandemic on scientific publishing during a period of rapid preprint publication.

“We worked extremely hard to get a bid in as quickly as possible in response to the pandemic,” Eve told Research Professional News.

“We were keen to do our bit. We committed to a start date within four weeks and were told the scheme had a 10-day turnaround. But it took nearly 10 days just to hear that the application had been assigned to the Arts and Humanities Research Council.”

It was not until 12 August that Eve and his team discovered that their bid had been rejected.

“It’s always frustrating to have a grant rejected, but it was the misalignment of timescales that was most difficult here,” he said. “We had to be ‘ready to go’ within four weeks. Yet months rumbled by before we heard. This makes any kind of institutional planning incredibly difficult.”

While he acknowledged challenges in the peer review process, Eve believes UKRI should have let applicants know they were unable to meet their stated deadlines while making “extreme demands” on the researchers.

“We have to plan for teaching in what looks to be the most difficult upcoming term of any of our lives,” he added. “The uncertainty around this grant and the assumption that we could just drop everything to their timetable is deeply frustrating.”

Another researcher, who did not wish to be identified, submitted a time-sensitive bid on 19 May for a project analysing the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector. The applicant said they received an email from the funder asking for further details on the project on 26 June, ahead of a phone interview on 30 July. But it was not until 12 August that their bid was approved.

While pleased with the outcome, the researcher told Research Professional News the delay meant they had to re-angle their project.

“It meant we weren’t able to research the impact during lockdown—so we missed audience behaviours in terms of digital engagement, for example,” the researcher said.

“Also, the policy landscape had changed significantly in the interim—with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announcement of the investment for the cultural sector taking place in early July, for example.”

The researcher added: “It made it extremely difficult to plan as the announcement came so close to the start of the new semester—so many co-investigators were under pressure to commit to other workload requirements such as teaching. We nearly lost some co-investigators and a key sector partner.”

Responding to the complaints, Charlotte Deane, Covid-response director at UKRI apologised to all applicants who have had to wait longer than expected.

“We know it’s taken a gargantuan effort by the whole sector—and individual researchers themselves as reviewers and proposers—to respond to the urgent call for research and innovation projects to tackle the pandemic,” she said.

“To clarify the timelines, we aimed to contact principal investigators within 10 working days—with a funding decision if possible but at least with an acknowledgement that their proposal was being processed. In June, we updated the timelines to acknowledge receipt of proposals within two working days, with funding panels meeting every four to six weeks to discuss proposals.

“With the level of interest shown in the call, a panel within six weeks may not mean every proposal will hear a decision within six weeks. We’ll continue to work hard to progress as many proposals as we can, as quickly as we can.”

Deane described the level of interest in the call as “unprecedented”.

“From 31 March to mid July 2020, we received over 2,000 applications—we assessed 1352 proposals and agreed to fund 148 projects, totalling £44.2 million—and these numbers are still growing,” Deane said. “We continue to receive up to 150 applications per week. Peer reviewers and panel members stepped up to turnaround reviews often within days rather than months, and teams across UKRI have worked tirelessly to give applicants a response as quickly as possible.

“That said, we’re sorry that some applications have taken longer to receive an answer than we would have hoped.”