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Thursday, 14 January 2021

Horizon Scan 2021

What does the future hold?
Close your eyes and hold on tight...
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash


Each year Research Professional invites me to look to the year ahead and try and predict what's on the cards in the world of research funding. Inevitably I get it wrong. But will 2021 be the year I'm spot on? Well, it's only January and I've already missed an insurrection in America and a second impeachment of the President. My crystal ball is as hazy as ever...

2020 was the year that wrongfooted us all. In December 2019 I confidently predicted that the year ahead in research would all be about the Research Excellence Framework, open access and due diligence, with a possible long-term comprehensive spending review.

Instead, we’ve had the explosion of a global pandemic that has concentrated all of our attention, both within the world of research and outside it. Unsurprisingly, open access and due diligence are no longer top of the agenda for many research leaders and policymakers. 

The switch to using research funding to tackle Covid-19 has been staggering. A good estimate of just how much has been redirected towards Covid-19 research by funders globally is hard to come by, but it is easily runs into billions of dollars. Such a redeployment of resources isn’t without its critics. In July a letter to Nature Microbiology made the point that more than twice as much Horizon 2020 funding this year had been committed to Covid-19 (€48 million) than the ‘big three killers’ of HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria (€21.5m). 

Yes, this is my roundabout attempt at an apologia for being so wide of the mark last year. I mean—how was I to know? And of course the unnerving possibility of events to happen unscheduled out there in the real world should be born in mind as I, once again, reach for the crystal ball and try to foresee what’s ahead in 2021. Let’s just hope it’s not Covid-21.

Funders will regroup after Covid-19

OK, let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, it now feels like we’re awash with vaccines—one of the upsides of the pandemic has been the way that institutional, national and funding boundaries have been put aside in the endeavour to find a way out of this mess. The speed of discovery, approval and production has been breath-taking. 

However, I don’t believe funding for the virus will now stop. Rather, it will continue, broadening out towards tackling the wider effects of the pandemic, and shift to focus on identifying and tackling future Sars viruses and other potential sources of pandemics. The coronavirus has been a brutal wake-up call to the dangers that come from complacency in a globalised world, but it has also shown what can be done with a concerted effort. Funders will want to build on this, and work together to address significant intractable challenges. Wellcome’s new strategy, with its challenge-focused approach, represents a step in this direction.

Official Development Assistance funding will be cut

It’s ironic, then, that the one area of funding that will be scaled back is that dealing explicitly with global challenges. Official Development Assistance funding has been a central part of government funding since the £1.6bn Global Challenges Research Fund launched in 2016. However, following the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the lukewarm commitment to collaborations with the global south in the R&D Roadmap, and the government reneging on its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid, things are looking decidedly shakier for ODA funding. 

At an Eastern Arc webinar earlier this month Jacqui Williams, UKRI head of partnership programmes international, said cuts were ‘inevitable’. Both the GCRF and the smaller—but at £735 million, hardly ‘small’—Newton Fund reach the end of their current iterations in 2021. They, or something like them, are likely to be given a new lease of life, but it seems unlikely that they will be backed as generously.

We will see the road and not just the map

In July 2020 the government set out its R&D Roadmap. I wrote about the main points we should take from it at the time. The short-term spending review put a little more meat on the bones, but next year the road ahead will start to become clearer. We should finally see what the much-trumpeted ‘levelling-up’ agenda will actually mean for research, and I would expect to see some initial calls around it. Whether funding for research is rolled up into the Shared Prosperity Fund remains to be seen. 

Similarly, Dominic Cummings’ pet project, the UK Arpa, should start to take shape, though Rishi Sunak’s promise of £50m towards the eventual £800m earmarked for it is somewhat—how shall we say?—limited. Is it a sign that Cummings’ influence on research may barely outlast his tenure as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser? A week is a long time in politics, after all.

People will be put first... 

Much of the roadmap centred on attracting and retaining research talent in the UK and, less explicitly, countering the corrosive effects of Brexit on the attractiveness of the UK for researchers. It also contributed to a wider movement to address bullying, harassment and intimidation in the research workplaces. Expect a government strategy on this in the spring. Funders—most notably Wellcome (which has been doing considerable work on ‘reimagining research’) and UKRI (under the leadership of Ottoline Leyser, who has been vocal on the issue)—will change their guidelines and conditions in light of this.

...but not always

Having said that, there is unprecedented uncertainty and gloom among researchers as redundancy and furlough tears through universities, particularly affecting early career researchers and those on temporary contracts. Tenured staff have also been affected by increased workloads, and I’m aware of at least one university that has cancelled all research leave this year. Next year will be a year to get research plans back on track, but with potentially smaller teams and fewer researcher assistants to help.

The Research Excellence Framework will be put to bed

No horizon scan would be complete without some mention of the Research Excellence Framework. The deadline for submissions was put back four months, and is now 31 March 2021. It will be a manic three months between now and then as universities line up their ducks and hone their returns, and there’ll be dancing on the streets of every registry in the land on 1 April.

We may get a longer-term spending review 

This year’s spending review was a stopgap measure while the Treasury sorted through the debris left by the pandemic. With the furlough scheme and other measures being harvested from the non-existent magic money tree, Sunak’s wings have been severely clipped, and many research commentators are concerned about the government’s commitment to its goal to invest £22 billion in R&D by 2024-25.

We’ll finally learn if we can continue to access European funding 

Horizon Europe, the new R&D funding programme from the European Commission, will start in January. The UK won’t initially be part of it, and there is still discussion within the government and the wider research community as to whether we want to be. Although UKRI has reportedly already been working on plans for a Discovery Fund to replace the ERC, I’m still optimistic that the UK will have some form of association with the new framework programme. It has been a net beneficiary in the past, but mainland collaborators have also benefited from the UK’s contribution, and it would be short-sighted and illogical for either side to pull back from this.

However, if the last four years has taught us anything, it’s that logic doesn’t always play a part in decision making. That’s why, even without a pandemic to contend with, predicting what will happen every year is such an impossible task. I’m getting my excuses in early this year.

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight in December 2020 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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