Open for (virtual) business

By Dan King, 27/2/2020.

Well, this started out as a simple statement of Research Consulting’s ‘open for work’ position in the current situation.  But as I went along it morphed into something a little bigger, as I began to reflect on how this crisis links into our work and some of our recent projects.

It seems incredible that only few days ago we were anticipating positive developments for research from the latest budget.  But as I write this, not only has REF 2021 been delayed by possibly 8 months, but so has the Tokyo Olympics and, whilst not quite as headline grabbing (but equally disappointing on a personal front) the PraxisAuril conference has been postponed for a full year.

The importance of research in our everyday life

Whilst disrupting life as we know it, the crisis has also offered an opportunity to reflect on what makes our work so important. Over the past seven years, Research Consulting has worked to support research funding, management, dissemination and uptake in the UK and internationally. More recently, there are some areas we’ve worked in where Covid-19 is having quite an impact:

  • Impact and importance of research to underpin policy
  • Open access publication, open research data and the rise in use of pre-prints
  • The civic role of universities
  • In research management, the developments in better systems to manage research portfolios from financial, compliance and strategy perspectives.

Unprecedented visibility and speed of research-led policy implementation

Before all this started, and with incredible timing, in November 2019 Research England announced £29m for “research activity supporting evidence-based policy making”.  Since then, never has evidence-based policy making been as clearly demonstrated to the public as it is now (see The Sun, 15th March) with daily joint updates from the Chief Scientific Advisor, Chief Medical Officer and Prime Minister.  The public have seen and been able to directly read research reports from Imperial College that influence the Prime Minister’s statements that evening. And these reports have generated widespread public debate and engagement in the recommendations and consequences. 

As a country we’re in the fortunate position of being home to an extraordinary wealth of experts — scientists, researchers and academics — at the forefront of their chosen fields.  These are people who’ve dedicated their whole lives to studying, researching, and honing their knowledge in their area of expertise, including vaccines and pandemics — knowledge now applied to tackling COVID-19.

Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Advisor writing in The Sun, 15th March 2020

Underpinning this is the work of SAGE – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – formed in 2009 in response to swine flu, subsequently it has advised on a range of issues, including flooding (2013), volcanic ash (2010) and Toddbrook reservoir (2019).  “One of the best systems in the world” according to one of our occasional Associates, Professor James Wilsden from the University of Sheffield.

And in research terms the global responses to coronavirus provide what has been called the “largest experiment ever” by providing otherwise impossible opportunities to understand how these massive behavioural changes affect things like pollution and our mental health

Rapid publication of COVID-19 research: part of a sustained wider trend

We’ve undertaken many reviews of open access and pre-prints, including the 2018 STM report (an overview of scientific and scholarly publishing) and support for the Universities UK Open Access Coordination Group. We’ve observed how trends in the growth of pre-prints can support open scholarship by enabling free online access and increasing the pace of research. Most recently, we’ve been working with the University of Oxford to review its support for open, reproducible research, and have been exploring the relationship between access to scientific information and international development for the UK’s Department for International Development and Research4Life. This crisis has seen rapid publication of results from research, initially in China and now more broadly. For example in January, The Lancet published findings from China of 41 coronavirus patient outcomes from Wuhan’s December outbreak the month before. 

And there are multiple stories from universities of work undertaken to contribute to the battle against Covid-19.  In 2018-19, we worked with both universities in Nottingham on a collaborative approach to their civic missions, and in response to coronavirus both universities have worked together, with the British Armed Forces, to provide 16 PCR machines for the NHS, which together can perform an estimated 20,000 tests a day.

Home working: a major test of systems and resilience

Finally, now that the flow of “working from home” tweets has subsided (a little), the reality and robustness of organisational systems to support remote working is really going to hit home.  We’re currently examining the responses from ARMA’s national survey of institutional research offices  which will shed some light on investments in research management systems.  Through our work for individual universities, we’ve observed new research management systems being implemented, but many still operate on older, fragmented, systems with limited support for remote working and project management.

Following work on research contract management in 2018, which also highlighted gaps in systems support, last year we held a webinar on developments in Artificial Intelligence-based systems to augment research contracts management, which featured colleagues from universities and a US provider, LegalSifter.  Dealing with new contracts is a high volume, complex task for universities, but assessing the risk of exposure in all existing contracts to this situation presents major challenges. So we observed with interest LegaSifter’s announcement around services in response to Covid-19 to help organisations manage their risks and obligations related to Force Majeure, Termination for Convenience and Governing Law.

Research Consulting: open for (virtual) business

So back to the original aim of this blog, we continue to operate more or less at full capacity in Research Consulting.  Our systems and processes are all underpinned by cloud-based solutions and we have full remote access to these, including access via apps on mobile devices.  The team are all working from home and making full use of the range of voice and video call facilities available to us.

We continue to work with our current clients, and have switched face-to-face activities and interviews to online meetings to continue delivery. 

Inevitably, though, colleagues in organisations we work with are dealing with massive changes and implications from this current situation, and we have adopted a flexible approach to working with clients at this exceptional time.  We recognise the massive pressures this situation brings to our stakeholders and clients, and understand the need to prioritise.

We remain just a phone call or email away, and are happy to discuss how we can work with colleagues and stakeholders to continue our support for research, knowledge exchange and scholarly communication.