5 strategies to protect research funding after COVID-19

By Lucia Loffreda and Rob Johnson 19/11/2020.

In the final post of our blog series on the impact of COVID-19 on research, we’ll look at five strategies to protect research funding. The economic consequences of COVID-19 will be long-lasting and unevenly felt, and stakeholders across the research landscape – including researchers, institutions and publishers – will be faced with a range of fundamental uncertainties in the years ahead.

In this blog, we’ll consider some of the impacts the pandemic has had on research funding so far, how stakeholders have responded to these changes to date, and how the research enterprise collectively can work to protect long-term research funding for a more resilient future.

This post follows on from a previous post, ‘Enabling the transition to open science’ and the post before that, ‘5 strategies to protect research capacity’. Each of the blogs in this series discuss one of the elements of the research enterprise which you can find detailed in our full or summary reports online, commissioned by Springer Nature.

Making sense of the pandemic’s impact on research funding

COVID-19 has had a sudden and severe impact on university finances. We’ve summarised these impacts below:

  • COVID exposes the cross-subsidisation of research by teaching, leading to strain on university budgets. The pandemic has raised questions about the sustainability of a model where international student fees are used to cross-subsidise research. UK and Australian universities are particularly exposed to a downturn in international student recruitment. We note in our report that early estimates suggested UK institutions could lose £2.5 bn (AU$4.4 bn) in tuition fees and teaching grant income in the 2020/21 academic year alone, putting up to 30,000 jobs at risk. Australian universities, meanwhile, face revenue losses of AU$3.1 bn to AU$4.8 bn (£1.75 to £2.7 bn) in 2020, threatening 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs.
  • The consequences of COVID-19 for the wider research funding landscape will be uneven. Public fundingfor research has represented one of the few stable income streams for universities during the pandemic. Rapid funding calls tied to the emergency response to COVID and government decisions to bring forward some research funding have helped bolster institutions’ cash position in the short-term. But other research funders in the charity and industry sector have been hard hit, with widespread cuts anticipated.
  • Research funding is under threat as COVID-recovery plans focus on economic growth. As government funding for university research also comes under pressure, stark choices will need to be made in light of the new economic reality. At present, many national approaches are expected to prioritise economic recovery, and this could drive a move from basic to applied research, with R&D funding focused on industry to the detriment of universities.

Formulating a response

The research system mobilised quickly in response to the challenges of the pandemic. In the ‘mobilise’ phase, funders prioritised supporting research activities directly related to the disease, such as medical research. In the ‘stabilise’ phase, funders focus on activities related to the effects of the pandemic on the economy or on society, such as the delivery of care. As we now look to the future, in the ‘strategise’ phase, funders and institutions must begin considering the impact of the pandemic on science, science funding and the broader landscape.

Figure 1. A three-phased response to the pandemic

Below, we outline five strategies to enable the long-term protection of funding for research:

  1. Ring-fence research funding to underpin managed systemic change. The severe strain on university budgets brought about by the past over-reliance on international student fees to subsidise research creates an incentive for the ring-fencing of research funding to support recovery from COVID-19. National governments will have a key role to play in addressing this challenge.
  2. Realign research investment towards biomedicine, digital and green technologies. There is little doubt that certain sectors and academic disciplines stand to gain from the pandemic while others lose. Future investment is likely to favour biomedicine, digital and green technologies – with the UK Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution the most recent example of how government priorities are shifting.
  3. Reform funding procedures to deliver greater agility and responsiveness. While research funders mobilised quickly in response to the pandemic, for example by reducing the time between application and award to speed up research activity, some researchers have felt that the funding system lacks sustainable agility. Further administrative reforms, led by research funders, will be vital to tackle this issue.
  4. Incentivise external partnerships, from discovery research to deployment. As research charities and industry partners face financial challenges, external partnerships should be encouraged to mitigate the uneven impact that COVID has had on these sectors. The coordinated efforts of government and policy makers as well as research funders will be critical to protecting charity and industry-led research.
  5. Co-ordinate solutions to improve research system sustainability. Securing public funding for research must be a long-term priority for governments after COVID-19. Governments and research funders can mitigate the damage by providing bridging funds to stabilise the system, ring-fencing public research funding for the medium and long-term, and taking co-ordinated action to improve the sustainability of the research system.

Many of the strategies highlighted above will rely on a coordinated response from stakeholders across the research landscape. In the graphic below, each strategy is linked to the stakeholders most critical to their implementation.

Figure 2. 5 strategies to protect research funding

Looking ahead

As we’ve seen in the past few months, academic research and innovation has been a vital part of building a global defence against COVID. From our own work, we expect that scientific research will continue to play a central role in COVID-19 recovery and we hope that funding for this critical activity will be protected.

The five strategies outlined in this post, and the fifteen strategies in total that we developed as part of our study, depend on governments, policy makers and other stakeholders taking harmonised and coordinated action, with the shared aim of equipping research systems for the future.

You can read the full set of findings and strategies in our full report, and last week’s blog at this link. Or, to keep the conversation going, you can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To discuss how we can help your organisation develop its strategy in the light of COVID-19 please visit our website or contact Rob Johnson, Director.