Funding Landscape

The Funding Landscape for UK Researchers:
A state of suspended animation

Written by Vicky, December 2020

Vicky Edkins

Future options for research funding within UK academia are mired in uncertainty. Whilst increasingly obvious as 2020 unfolded, the past few weeks have driven this fact home. Over this period I have been carrying out a substantial piece of analytical work for a UK research centre. A component of this project has been the mapping of expertise, skills and research specialisms within the centre to current and upcoming research funding opportunities. During this process I have been struck by the extreme level of uncertainty currently facing UK academic researchers with regards to what research funding will look like in the near future. A culmination of various factors has led to a state of ‘suspended animation’ in which there is so much uncertainty that planning of future activities has become much more difficult.

"...I have been struck by the extreme level of uncertainty currently facing UK academic researchers with regards to what research funding will look like in the near future."

The most obvious and long-running contributor to this uncertainty of course is Brexit. The 31st December 2020 marks the end of the transition period and yet there is still no clarity over what this means for the UK’s eligibility for funding under the European Union’s new funding framework Horizon Europe. The UK has historically been one of the largest recipients of EU research funding; for the period 2014 – 2016 the UK received a 15.2% share of the total Horizon 2020 contribution – a figure that was second only to Germany’s share of 16.7% [1] . This funding has not only funded impactful research and driven innovation, but has also facilitated the development of careers, partnerships and collaborations. Ongoing political wrangling means that the nature of the UK’s access to EU research funding is still to be confirmed. However, there is a sentiment within the academic community at least, that a final scenario which will maintain the current level of benefits seen by UK research and innovation is unlikely [2].

The research funding landscape within the UK is also in a state of flux. A combination of factors including the frequency of changes in government leadership and the Covid-19 pandemic have resulted in a series of short-term budgets and spending reviews in place of long-term budgetary planning. In turn this limited the capacity of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to develop long-term strategies. The current delivery plans of UKRI and the UKRI’s nine councils are dated 2019 – 20 [3]. The visions, missions and values of the research councils for 2021 and beyond have not yet been made clear.

On a positive note, the Government’s November spending review [4] set out a multi-year settlement for UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Academies Research budget, which will grow by more than £400 million on average per year until 2023-24. Furthermore, £50 million of the £350 million allocated to UKRI is the first instalment of a promised £800 million investment in a new high-risk, high-payoff funding scheme which has been likened to what was the United States’ Advanced Research Projects Agency (which has since had ‘Defence’ added to its title). Whilst this high-risk, high-reward funding offers a glimmer of hope to those concerned about the potential loss of European Research Council (ERC) funding, no details of what the scheme’s priorities will be or the mechanisms by which funding will be awarded have yet been released…adding to the general air of uncertainty.

"On a positive note, the Government set out a multi-year settlement for UKRI and the National Academies Research budget, which will grow by more than £400 million on average per year until 2023-24."

Funding schemes such as the Future Leaders Fellowships, the Newton fund and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) are all either coming to an end or due to end in 2021, with no indication of whether or how they will be renewed or replaced. On the face of it, the proposed £5 billion cut to the UK’s overseas aid budget does not bode well for ODA-funded research schemes. However, the Foreign Secretary has stipulated that a key focus of ODA funding will be on increasing UK partnerships in science, research and technology [5]. However, regardless of the ODA funding allocations that emerge, indications that changes to ODA research funding will occur existed even prior to the November spending review. A review of the Newton Fund published in June 2020 [6] is damning of the implementation of the Fund, stating that ‘…development, impact, and ODA-eligibility must be far better understood, measured and reported by delivery partners’ (pg. 4). Critically, the report recommends that the review be used to make substantial changes to the Newton Fund’s design and that the lessons learned should also be applied to the GCRF.

Covid-19 and the enormous economic uncertainty that the pandemic has caused has also led to disruption to charitable research funding. In their response to the Government’s spending review, Cancer Research UK stated ‘the impact of COVID-19 on medical research charities has been devastating, with the sector expecting a £310 million shortfall in their research funding this year alone.’ [7]

The economic consequences of Covid-19 have also had a demonstrable and direct impact on the availability of funding. For example, the Carnegie Trust has temporarily suspended its Research Incentive Grant Scheme stating ‘the Trust is facing a significant drop in its income due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak… we have reluctantly taken the decision to temporarily suspend the Research Incentive Grant scheme’ [8]

"The economic consequences of Covid-19 have also had a demonstrable and direct impact on the availability of funding."

The current level of uncertainty and speculation that exists around research funding makes strategic planning exceptionally difficult for both institutions and individual academics. As 2021 fast approaches we can say with enormous hope, but unfortunately also a lack of certainty, that clarity will emerge in the research funding landscape in the new year and that the state of suspended animation will come to an end.

REFERENCES

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/sites/horizon2020/files/h2020_threeyearson_a4_horizontal_2018_web.pdf
[2] https://physicsworld.com/a/uks-access-to-european-funding-under-threat-from-third-country-status/
[3] https://www.ukri.org/about-us/what-we-do/delivery-plans/
[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/spending-review-2020-documents
[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/official-development-assistance-foreign-secretarys-statement-november-2020
[6] https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/1443/documents/13224/default/
[7] https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2020/11/25/spending-review-2020-steps-in-the-right-direction-but-opportunities-missed/
[8] https://www.carnegie-trust.org/award-schemes/research-incentive-grants/