COVID-19: Three priorities for a research-led recovery

By Rob Johnson and Lucia Loffreda 02/11/2020.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, no aspect of society has been left undisrupted, and university research is no exception. In fact, in recent months, the value of academic research has arguably increased, as the world looks to scientists for answers and eagerly awaits a vaccine to help us control the spread of the virus.

At Research Consulting, we’ve been following the crisis and what it means for university research very closely. In the summer, we were commissioned by Springer Nature to examine the current and possible long-term impacts of the pandemic as well as the priorities for a research-led recovery. Today, we’ve published both summary and full reports setting out our findings. Our study focused specifically on two higher education systems – the UK and Australia – since both rely heavily on international student fees to subsidise research, but also draws on other examples from elsewhere in Europe and Singapore.

This work forms part of a series commissioned by Springer Nature to help inform universities’ medium and long term planning, and accompanies two studies on the US academic research enterprise, from Ithaka S&R and Jason Owen-Smith.

Putting university research into context

In both the UK and Australia, universities lie at the heart of the national research effort. In recent months they have played a critical role in society, and have contributed immensely to efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic. While there are social benefits that come from this, which we’ll come back to in later posts, universities also face immense challenges, competing priorities and demands on resources in the short term.

As our report identifies, a key issue for UK and Australian universities is the significant reliance on international student fees to cross-subsidise research. By some estimates, 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 up to AU$4.8 bn (£2.7 bn) in 2020, threatening 21,000 full-time equivalent jobs.

Three priorities for a research-led recovery

In light of the risks to university research, our work has highlighted three priorities for a research-led recovery from COVID-19:

  1. Protect research capacity: COVID-19 has significantly impacted the ability of researchers to progress their work. Arrangements for opening campus facilities for research remain fragile, while there are growing concerns over researchers’ mental health and wellbeing. Institutions, funders and policymakers must develop strategies to safeguard research capacity, develop and retain talent, and promote diversity for the long term. This will require the development of new research priorities, methods, partnerships, postgraduate research training programmes and career pathways.
  2. Transition to open science: COVID-19 has exposed longstanding fault lines in the current system of scholarly communication. While the balance appears to have shifted decisively in favour of open science, concerns around quality assurance and financial sustainability remain unresolved. Strategic thinking is needed to tackle a legacy of a lack of investment in digital infrastructure, redefine the roles of commercial and community actors, develop a more efficient peer review process, and embed open science as the ‘new normal’ for research
  3. Secure research funding: Researchers and institutions are faced with a range of fundamental uncertainties that are inimical to strategic thinking, long-term planning, and, most importantly, excellent research. These challenges are global, but are particularly acute in those university systems, like the UK and Australia, where the sustainability of research relies on international student fees. 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.

How should universities respond?

While our study reports the findings of a still unfolding crisis, we found that most stakeholders – including universities – are reacting to the pandemic in three phases:

  1. they mobilise resources in the immediate term;
  2. they develop tactical responses to stabilise operations and navigate the new situation; and
  3. they are now called on to design strategies to emerge stronger after COVID-19.
Figure 1. A phased response to the crisis (adapted from: PwC 2020)

This process, however, isn’t necessarily linear, as universities, funders and other stakeholders have oscillated between the mobilising and stabilising phases for many months. As of yet, very few organisations can be said to have any long-term strategy and it’s likely that many stakeholders will be caught between the mobilising and stabilising phases as uncertainties continue.

Developing strategies

University research has the potential to play a central role in the COVID-19 recovery. Its ability to fulfil this potential relies on governments, policymakers and other stakeholders recognising and addressing the three priorities identified in this study. Doing this effectively means moving the pandemic response from the mobilise and stabilise phase into the third phase: strategise.

In the remainder of this blog series, we’ll further explore the risks the pandemic presents to the academic research enterprise, and set out 15 underpinning strategies which universities, funders, governments, publishers and other stakeholders should be adopting to enable a research-led recovery from COVID-19. You can read the full set of findings and strategies in our full report here, or follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to be notified of the next posts in the series.

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.