Stepping into Post-Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted our social world, with immediate knock-on effects in the academic sector. From the viewpoint of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), some of these indirect effects include reduction in research funding pools, loss of student enrolment/increased rates of drop-out, restricted access to research sites or communities of study, displacement of organic social and community networks, and the emergence of raw social injustices brought about by increased mental anxieties and constraints of government regulations (Universities UK). Many of these challenges were already ongoing to varying extents but have been significantly exacerbated during the crisis.
Indeed, as with any large-scale structural shocks to society, many of these issues are correlated with each other, as adverse conditions in one part of the sector tend to strain other parts as well. For instance, HEIs which depend disproportionately on international tuition fees to subsidise research overheads would have felt both their teaching and research budgets tighten with drops or delays in enrolment, as prospective students from outside the UK reconsidered the options available to them. And female academics, who already face a significant gender disparity, have seen this gap grow as they spent more time on domestic activities during the pandemic, further diminishing overall teaching and research function in the sector (BMJ, 2020).
The following insights relate specifically to challenges facing academic researchers due to changes in the sector and highlight areas of disruption or change to the UK research landscape.
Academic Research capacity
On average, the UK spends significantly less in research and development (R&D) than many other countries. Before the pandemic, it was reported that UK R&D is approximately 1.7% of GDP, well below the OECD average of 2.4% (Universities UK, Funding). While there is a roadmap to reach that 2.4% target within the next decade, downstream funding offered to HEIs is still likely to be disproportionate, depending on the business sector contributions, desired areas of innovation, and geographical priorities. While it may be argued that these represent well-known risks of funding allocation, what is new is that all areas are being squeezed simultaneously, with alternate income sources being constricted across business, public and academic sectors alike. What this means is that HEIs are more likely to commit to ‘playing to their strengths’, at least for the medium term. Strategic plans which reflect wholesale changes to research capacity may involve reducing the full-time equivalent (FTE) proportion of workloads offered to research staff, or consolidation of research centres and groups in order to target specific funding routes.
This is likely to affect both early career researchers who are just beginning to develop their own research portfolios, as well as seasoned researchers who may depend on sabbaticals or fellowships to develop substantial pieces of work. It is advised that research-active staff who are impacted by changes to the strategic direction of their employing HEI should seek support and advice from their line managers, union, and academic representatives.
Academic Research funding
On the other side of the arena, research-active staff should also be on the lookout for changes to the profiles of funders, as their own directions and missions may have changed following the pandemic. The UK Government’s decision to cut the foreign aid Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget has left shortfalls in established programmes like the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund, forcing many active projects to reformat their budgets. At a lower level, the Wellcome Trust, a popular charitable foundation among healthcare researchers, has recently updated its vision to focus on mental health, infectious diseases, and climate-related health challenges, with a concomitant change to its funding structure.
Changes such as these mean that researchers should always keep alert to the relative supply of research funding, and what avenues of research support the most demand in the sector. Some academic disciplines like the Arts and Humanities already receive a lower allocation of funding compared with Medical, Engineering and Life Sciences, but the key for researchers in such disciplines is to find creative ways to adapt to the mission of funding bodies and highlight how their own areas of focus are related. Some funding bodies like the British Academy have ongoing commitments to interdisciplinary research, which may help stabilise the proportional demand for research activities in the longer run. In general, funders will likely place significant emphasis on research relevant and value for money in the near term, as their own purse-strings tighten, and researchers should be prepared to seize the best opportunities as they become available.
Another related challenge is the shape of research designs across various disciplines post-pandemic. Scientific fields are being challenged to deliver priority research faster and more meaningfully, resulting in a desire for methodologies that commit to ‘rapid research’, as well as ethnographic-style assessments which can highlight inequalities in subpopulations under study. In parallel, researchers in the social sciences are being tasked with delivery of more robust ‘evidence-based’ studies, with the result that research designs which are not deemed equivalent in validity and reliability status to randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are gradually falling out of favour. This has been a significant source of contention in many social science subjects, which continue to argue for different understanding of the nature of evidence compared with the natural and medical sciences.
Researchers across all disciplines should be aware of the changing landscape of requirements for evidence and evaluations that might affect their own work. Novel methodologies are always emerging, and researchers should pay close attention to how these are received, and perhaps more purposefully, how they are oriented to provide evidence which can be taken through policy channels for research engagement and impact.
A final consideration for researchers is the nature of research itself moving forward in the post-pandemic world. Research activities have long been considered as wholly within the domain of HEIs, which are granted a unique status to carry out and substantiate those activities. Recently, however, there has been a drive to promote the embeddedness of research knowledge within the community, both to act as a check on the use of public funds, as well as to integrate community know-how and expertise in the development of research. The UK has sanctioned this through the Knowledge Exchange Framework, which challenges HEIs to be more open, forthcoming, and integrative with their community representation. For individual researchers, this also indicates a corresponding shift to research designs and methods that rely on co-production with various target groups, particularly those who have ‘lived experience’ of the conditions under investigation.
Researchers should consider building sustainable networks and partnerships within the community and local firms. These may begin as ‘knowledge transfer partnerships’ but should also have the potential to evolve organically into viable enterprise or business and community development activities. Many HEIs have already established enterprise or external engagement activities as a distinct career stream for their staff, parallel to but synergistic with traditional research streams. In this case, it is advisable for researchers to consider how best to adapt their skill sets to move through and across these streams, in order to achieve natural economies of scale for their combined research and knowledge exchange portfolios.