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Covid-19: Research delayed as labs prep for possible lockdown

Scramble for contingency plans as some research is delayed or postponed due to pandemic

Universities and research funders are scrambling to put contingency plans in place as the UK grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Russell Group of research-intensive universities said “vital research activity has had to be delayed or postponed” and that there is reduced “ability to provide the support needed in the grant administration process” because support services are predominantly moving to at home working.

Meanwhile, individual institutions have been drawing up their own contingency plans.

Martin Kirk, operations director for research and researchers at King’s College London, told Research Professional News that the university was preparing for “a number of different scenarios”.

“We’ve already told most staff to work remotely and lots of our staff are already working from home quite successfully. But, of course, there are some lab-based researchers who we can’t send home,” he said.

“However we are making plans in case we are told there is a lockdown, in which case we would have to do an orderly shutdown of our research activity.”

In such a scenario, Kirk estimates that between one third and half of the university’s research workforce would be unable to continue their work.

There is also priority given to the upkeep of the university’s core facilities, such as NMR and MRI machines, which require continual maintenance.

“In that scenario, we would likely have a classification of essential workers who would have special access so we could continue to maintain our core facilities,” he said.

Whatever happens over the next few months, universities are likely to suffer a big financial hit.

“If there is a shutdown there are going to be all sorts of [financial] implications for research both for established grants and for the grants that we would naturally apply for but which may not be applied for in the short term,” added Kirk.

“There’s going to be a lot of expenses because we’re going to be running facilities but we likely won’t have the normal ongoing flow of research funding.”

The Russell Group’s chief executive Tim Bradshaw on 18 March urged UK Research and Innovation to create an emergency fund to cover the salaries of staff, stipends and other research costs during the coronavirus pandemic.

UKRI acknowledged that existing funding grants are likely to be disrupted as a consequence of workforce pressures during the virus outbreak. It replied to Bradshaw on 19 March saying that they “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”.

Scientists for Labour, a group affiliated to the party, has also called for further funding and support to ensure research labs can stay open.

The comments come as many researchers have had their research trips and conferences cancelled and some are even stuck at field sites as countries close their borders in an attempt to stem the virus.

“We’ve all been worrying about suspending field seasons but I know quite a few field biologists who’ve ended up stranded in the field,” tweeted Dani Rabaiotti of Zoological Society of London.

Eddie Stewart, president of the University of Glasgow Archaeological Society told Research Professional News that a number of the society’s members have had to cancel fieldwork plans in Europe, with some leaving sites just in time to return home before borders closed.

“The disruption of foreign fieldwork and the uncertainty over the feasibility of UK-based fieldwork in the event of a lockdown are principal concerns for our members,” he said.

“It’s worse for some of our members whose specialisms are in the Mediterranean region and who now may have to consider desk-based methodologies or delay their deadlines to allow for fieldwork after the virus passes.

“Two have only just escaped the closing of the borders of Cyprus over the weekend and I have had to miss fieldwork in Central Italy this summer.”