Professor Patrick Grant: the research landscape

As the end of Trinity term approaches, it is timely to reflect on how the tumult of the last year or so has altered the research landscape. Even as our research and its value to society has been propelled into the spotlight during the pandemic, we now face some uncertainty in future funding arrangements. This uncertainty is felt keenly by fixed-term contract researchers, many of whose research progress has been restricted and who are concerned about whether career progression opportunities will be available to the same extent as before the pandemic.

What has been very encouraging so far is that, despite so many additional calls on staff time at home and at work, external research proposals continue to be submitted at pre-pandemic levels, and the number and value of new grants being started each month is – so far – in line with a ‘normal’ year. This resilience is deeply impressive and may provide some reassurance, since many of these applications will go on to provide funding for future career opportunities for researchers. There has also been no slowdown in our John Fell Fund and Strategic Research Fund investments in research and researchers. For researchers whose momentum has been most severely affected by the pandemic, the John Fell Fund and the four divisions have jointly sponsored a second round of the COVID-19 Rebuilding Research Momentum Fund.

The research cuts forced on the University by government reductions in Overseas Development Aid of approximately 70% has caused concern across the University, the sector and with our collaborators in low- and middle-income countries around the world. When I learned of the cuts, and even as we did everything we could to fight them, I assumed the worst. But with fantastic work by researchers, departments and Research Services, project finances are being re-planned and we are managing to limit the impact on staff – although excellent and impactful work will be curtailed, here and with our overseas partners. Better news was confirmation that UK participation in the EU’s Horizon programme will not cannibalise existing research commitments, and UKRI’s core research budget received a small uplift.

The new Research Staff Hub was launched at the end of April. Joining hundreds of researchers online for the hub opening, the Vice-Chancellor signed the Concordat to Support the Career Development for Researchers. The hub brings together the University’s research staff community and, working with departments and divisions, will lead the delivery of the Concordat commitments. The hub team looks forward to welcoming research staff to the physical hub space on Keble Road at a further launch event in September. The hub will help consider how the University can improve the research experience of all researchers, and how we can better recognise and reward everyone who contributes to research excellence. This will involve researchers at all career stages, those who support research, supervisors and our external sponsors. I am hoping we will find both new ways of doing the best research and new ideas of how to be the best place to do it.