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Pulling together

As researchers support the Covid-19 effort, they need support in return

For the first time in decades, Research Fortnight is brought to you this week not from our Shoreditch HQ, but from a variety of makeshift studies and kitchen tables around the UK and Europe. Like vast swathes of the sector and wider society, we’ll be working in a different way for the foreseeable future to slow the devastating spread of the novel coronavirus. But we are determined to continue our reporting—particularly that related to the unprecedented challenge of combating Covid-19.

This week, even as many across the sector have faced personal anxiety and professional upheaval, researchers have continued work on a potential vaccine, diagnostics and treatments. The National Institute for Health Research has stopped work on other medical studies so its researchers can focus on Covid-19 research or be redeployed to frontline care.

Many UK universities have pre-empted government advice by closing their premises for teaching. They have also set up initiatives to support students reliant on university accommodation—Queen’s University Belfast, for example, is allowing students to end accommodation contracts early “at no financial penalty”, while allowing those who wish to remain to do so. 

Where students are in accommodation owned by private providers, universities have been asked by the government to step in and enforce a ‘non-eviction policy’ if students do not have an alternative place to live—a move particularly important for international students—to make sure no student is forced to leave halls if their agreement does not cover holiday periods or if their contract is up. This adds to questions about the apparent outsourcing of responsibility for student welfare that comes with such arrangements in the longer term—although those will need to be answered another day.

A host of other initiatives have also sprung up for which the universities involved deserve gratitude. The University of Nottingham, and Nottingham Trent University, have supplied 16 biomedical testing machines capable of performing around 20,000 tests per day to the national effort; other universities have made similar gestures. Meanwhile, more still have donated clinical suites and lab supplies to the health service. 

Universities are well-placed to help society overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. But the problems they are grappling with—at a global level, in helping to develop a vaccine, a national level, in supporting the NHS, or at a local one, in assisting their own students—need urgent and clear focus. One way in which the UK’s research authorities have supported them this week has been by postponing the November submission date for the next Research Excellence Framework, following a growing clamour from the sector. This will free university staff and researchers from the pressure of a deadline whose importance must now be seen in a very different context.

Research Fortnight is proud to view itself as a champion of the research sector. If you would like us to raise awareness of policy measures that would help your vital work in mitigating the impact of the virus, or if there is information we might be able to supply, our lines—from our various locations— are, as always, open. 

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight