UCL Research


Supporting research during COVID-19 disruption

18 May 2020

UCL Vice-Provost (Research) David Price on how staff from across UCL are responding to the impact of the pandemic

David Price

One of UCL’s strategic aims is to inspire and empower researchers and the professional staff who facilitate research. COVID-19 and its disruption has shown the need for this more than ever.

I’d like to share with you how colleagues from across UCL are responding to the impact of the pandemic and the challenge of making sure research across our disciplines continues to thrive. 

At a national level, we have been engaging with government and funders since the disruption began. Both as UCL and along with other Russell Group members, we have been making the case for supporting research during this difficult time. 

This is a challenging situation for our funding partners: government is dealing with multiple and significant demands on the public purse, while charity funders are facing a major downturn in income. We are continuing our dialogue with our partners so that we can reach the best possible outcome for research and, of course, the public benefit research brings.

In the meantime, we have acted as quickly as we can to help UCL staff and students. A dedicated group on research under the emergency command structure will continue to find solutions to current and emerging issues. Chaired by Professor Alan Thompson (Dean of Brain Sciences), the group draws on expertise in research and professional services from across UCL. As a result we have been able to deliver a number of supportive initiatives. 

We have offered those grant-funded staff who were expecting to depart UCL during May and June 2020 the opportunity to be furloughed and have their leaving date extended until the end of June. For those grant-funded staff who are due to leave UCL during July and August 2020, we are using furlough to extend their leaving date until the end of August. In addition, current grant-funded staff who are unable to work remotely may also have the opportunity to be furloughed. Whenever furlough is used, staff will still receive 100% of their salary with UCL making up the difference in most cases.

Our package to support PhD students helps both funded and self-funded students. UCL is underwriting final-year student stipends at the minimum UKRI rate for up to three months in the first instance. Self-funded PhD students have had the third and final instalment of tuition fees extended from 2 May until 31 July 2020. 

Any PhD student experiencing financial hardship can apply to the Financial Assistance Fund for a grant of up to £3,000 at any time up to 31 July 2020. Any PhD student who was registered as of 1 March 2020 will automatically be given 15 months (full-time) or 30 months (part-time) writing up status at the time they take this up.

We have also opened up new online opportunities for PhD students. The SysMIC platform provides bioscientists with the maths and computing training sought for cross-disciplinary research and collaboration. Nearly 300 students will benefit from this resource. UCL Library Services have made available over 100 sets of additional content from publishers for the period of the disruption.

You will have seen that UCL researchers are making a significant contribution to the national response to COVID-19. The breathing aids developed by UCL, UCLH and Formula One have now been delivered to nearly 50 NHS hospitals. The preliminary results of an international drug treatment trial, co-led by UCL and the Medical Research Council, has shown “very promising” preliminary results. On the policy side, a number of leading UCL academics have been named as scientific advisors on the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its related sub-groups.

There are more than 130 separate research projects across UCL looking into COVID-19 and its impact. We have strived to ensure that they have access to the support and facilities they need to do their work, from prioritising applications for ethical approval to opening up laboratories. 

It is important to remember that funding schemes are still open for applications and new projects can get underway, or at least make plans to start. Understandably, the disruption has affected the number of research funding applications from UCL, but it is encouraging that more than 400 applications have been submitted since remote working began. 

We have also launched a new funding call for research projects focused on rapid responses and novel solutions to understand and tackle the challenges faced during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. This call is open to all disciplines across UCL. The scheme is supported by the UCL Coronavirus Response Fund, with co-funding from the UCL Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund along with UCLH and Moorfields NIHR Biomedical Research Centres (with the possibility of additional funding from other sources).

There is positive news in that the number and value of awards secured to date continues to exceed last year’s figures. There are too numerous to mention, but a few examples give a flavour of the breadth of research that UCL researchers continue to undertake. A new £6m EPSRC programme seeks to make possible the first data interconnects, switches and sensors that use lasers monolithically integrated onto silicon. Researchers have won European Research Council awards to investigate areas such as fluctuations in prosperity and employment, and the atmosphere of planets orbiting other stars. Individuals have won prestigious fellowships from Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust to pursue areas such as the application of AI to healthcare in the diagnosis of eye disease, and the impact of social media on democracy. The recent receipt of UKRI Future Leaders fellowships by seven of our researchers – bringing UCL’s total in this scheme to 23, the highest number for any institution – reinforces my faith that our research will continue to thrive in the long term. 

An immediate concern is how to re-open campus for research. We are making plans for a phased return that can be carefully managed and to a campus that is safe and secure. Research facilities depend on colleagues from across UCL, including researchers, professional services staff, and security and cleaning staff. Each has a role to play and we need to ensure that they are able to leave home and can travel safely to and from campus before opening up additional research spaces.

In the coming weeks and months there will be further challenges to address. We recognise that the current disruption affects our research community differently and some feel less secure than others. 

We may not have all the answers yet, but we are determined to find solutions that support our world class research community. We are also looking at the longer-term implications for our researchers and research at UCL, through a group chaired by Professor Nigel Titchener-Hooker (Dean of Engineering). You’ll hear more about this work in the near future.

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research)

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