Independent process review of UKRI’s response to COVID-19

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An independent review, published today, presents findings from a process review of UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) response to COVID-19.

The review was carried out by the Technopolis group and looked at the period from February 2020 to March 2021.

It concluded that UKRI performed well in its function as a research and innovation funder, given the difficult conditions presented by the pandemic.

The team:

  • reviewed over 400 documents
  • surveyed over 500 researchers, UKRI staff members and key figures in the UK’s COVID-19 response, including the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

6,300 additional applications processed

The report examined how UKRI processed a substantially larger volume of applications (over 6,300 additional applications in one year) at a much faster pace than normal.

By comparison, UKRI received 16,904 applications for research and innovation grants in the 2018 to 2019 financial year (‘business-as-usual’).

So the COVID-19 response application volume (much of which had to be processed within two to three months) added around 30% to UKRI’s typical annual application volume.

Rapid funding critical to pandemic response

Particularly in the early months of the pandemic, UKRI rapidly funded a range of studies critical to the pandemic response including:

  • the RECOVERY trial, which identified dexamethasone as a lifesaving treatment
  • clinical trials to support the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine
  • a UK-wide Coronavirus clinical characterisation consortium
  • ISARIC-4C, which identified risk factors of disease severity (including the role of ethnicity, gender and comorbidities)
  • long COVID studies (for example, the post-hospitalisation COVID-19 study)
  • crucial genetic studies (for example, the COVID-19 Genomics UK, COG-UK), which have played an instrumental role in understanding transmission and variants.

Key areas of focus

The report’s key areas of focus were UKRI’s:

  • strategic rationale
  • governance
  • funding and process changes
  • operations and delivery
  • communications
  • assessment processes
  • monitoring of awards throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evaluation scope

The scope of the process evaluation covered a range of UKRI interventions, including:

  • open funding opportunities, for example:
    • the UKRI COVID-19 Agile Research and Innovation response opportunity
    • the UKRI and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Rapid Response Initiative
  • international funding opportunities, for example:
    • Global Challenges Research Fund and Newton Fund agile response opportunity to address COVID-19
    • Global Effort on COVID-19 Health Research (jointly supported by UKRI and the Department of Health and Social Care)
  • platform and consortia studies, for example:
    • COG-UK, funded in partnership with NIHR and Wellcome
  • deployment of existing capabilities, for example:
    • accelerated processes for existing UKRI-funded research projects (projects funded before the COVID-19 pandemic) to change scope and objectives.

Key findings

Key findings showed that the UKRI COVID-19 governance arrangements worked very well, especially in terms of facilitating cross-council work through the establishment of a central coordination group with substantial decision-making power.

The governance arrangements also allowed for multiple lines of communication between the coordination group and central government, particularly during the immediate pandemic response, which enabled clear communication of research needs.

Recommendations for future crisis responses

The report has also set out recommendations to help inform possible future crisis responses, some of which are also applicable to post-pandemic business-as-usual practices. These include:

  • urgently replacing the existing online electronic system (Je-S and Siebel) used to submit applications with a system that enables rapid design and setup of new funding models where they are needed. And the option for delivery of cross-council and UKRI-wide funding opportunities and easy collection of comprehensive data, including ethnicity
  • the creation of a small suite of different funding schemes for crisis responses of all types, and to make use of these habitually (for example, in smaller-scale crises)
  • closely replicating the governance structure used for the COVID-19 response for future large cross-council endeavours
  • ensuring a rule-change on how UKRI can rapidly reallocate its budget in possible future crisis scenarios.

Performing well under huge pressure

Dr Jonathan Pearce, UKRI Interim Director of Strategy and Planning said:

This report highlights what an amazing job the research and innovation sector did in rapidly responding to the pandemic, and that UKRI systems and processes stood up well under huge pressure, supporting a large body of work relevant to all aspects of the pandemic that has already helped mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and saved lives.

Make no mistake, however, we’re not complacent. It’s clear there are key lessons to be learned to ensure we are better able to respond to future shocks. These include ensuring that we have the systems in place to work across government and with impacted communities to prioritise research questions and to collect application data in times of intense pressure, including equality, diversity and inclusion data.

The report also acknowledges that UKRI staff and the research community worked diligently night and day to ensure applications were processed and crucial projects funded, but that this was at substantial personal cost. In implementing the report’s recommendations, we will improve our systems to better maintain healthy working environments for all, through such pressured periods.

All of the report recommendations have been accepted by UKRI, with many of them already in the process of being implemented.

Top image:  Credit: PrathanChorruangsak, Getty Images

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