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Open letter to the research and innovation community

24/04/2020

Open letter to the research and innovation community

UKRI has a key role in supporting research and innovation so that the UK can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic as strongly as possible. This is an update on the progress made since my last message at the end of March.

We are talking to all parts of the research and innovation system, including researchers, universities, businesses, charities and others. We continue to review and refine our policies to adapt to the significant change in circumstances that the research and innovation community has had to deal with in the last few weeks. This is a step by step process, focusing on the most pressing issues but not losing sight of the fact that there is considerable uncertainty for many people.

Just before Easter we published further guidance on how we are supporting the people that we fund and work with, announcing 6-month costed extensions for UKRI funded PhD students in their final year. This is the result of detailed discussion with Government to find practical solutions to what is a complex challenge.

We know that doctoral students face a variety of circumstances with both their personal lives and their projects, such as juggling caring responsibilities, being unable to access laboratories, carry out fieldwork or meet with interviewees, which is impacting their ability to undertake their research. We cannot provide answers to every question or cover every situation, which is why, as we set out in our guidance, we are committed to reviewing the situation later this year and will work closely with our training partners when doing so. For those students not in their final year, our earlier guidance that costed extensions should be provided on a case by case approach remains the solution for the timebeing.

We are working with government to identify how we can best support other parts of the research and innovation system. An important issue is the extent to which we can provide costed grant extensions, especially for staff nearing the end of their grant funding. We recognise that making our intentions clear will help research organisations decide how to best support their staff during this uncertain period. We are giving the matter our highest priority and intend to announce our position as quickly as possible.

We also know innovative businesses are facing particular challenges. As part of the government’s business support package, providing targeted help for the most R&D intensive small and medium size firms, Innovate UK will accelerate up to £200m of grant and loan payments for its existing partners. This is alongside additional grants of up to £175,000 for firms not currently receiving Innovate UK funding.

Innovate UK is further supporting these efforts through a £20 million competition for businesses, providing grants of up to £50,000 to develop new technologies and new ways of working during the pandemic that could help boost the UK’s resilience. The response to this initial fast-start competition has been phenomenal with over 8,500 submissions.  

Innovate UK is actively working with partners in Government to understand how their R&D budgets in aerospace, automotive, energy, health and wider transport are best deployed to position businesses to continue R&D as the economy returns to work.

We have also made funding available for research to address key issues to which COVID-19 is giving rise, and changed our processes to ensure that proposals are considered quickly but robustly.  We have been delighted by the outstanding response there has been from researchers so far. Our rapid research call with NIHR has just announced support totalling £14.1 million for twenty-one new studies. We have opened an accelerated funding process for any projects seeking to address COVID-19, with applications acknowledged within 48 hours and an aim to make decisions within 10 days. I am clear that we need to help innovators and researchers to work throughout the crisis and be an engine for growth once the outbreak is over.

Although we must work closely with the research and innovation community, we must also help the public to engage with science, particularly when it is featuring heavily in the media and in conversations. We have launched a new website for anyone interested in the science of COVID-19, Coronavirus – The Science Explained, providing authoritative and up-to-date explanations of the scientific evidence behind the pandemic.

As well as identifying the measures we need to work through the short-term disruption, we are thinking about how COVID-19 will affect the whole research and innovation system in the longer term. What are the new research questions emerging from the outbreak, how will our research priorities change and what will the UK need from its research and innovation community? One month on from the initial disruption we have learned a lot but know there is still much to do. We will work as quickly as possible to address the immediate challenges while talking with the sector on an ongoing basis about UKRI’s long term direction and strategic priorities.

Signature of Sir Mark Walport

Professor Sir Mark Walport


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