Researchers have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of significant challenge; the demands of balancing workloads, extensions on research projects impacted by COVID-19 and unexpected cuts to ODA funding, which required rapid re-prioritisation. Despite this, we ended the last financial year with research income of just over £38 million and high success rates for NERC and the AHRC. We were able to offer 50 colleagues most affected by the pandemic a period of funded research leave to enable them to get their research back on a firm footing. We completed a REF submission to 22 Units of Assessment, which represented the outputs of 700.25 FTE research staff and await publication of the results in May 2022. In the meantime, we reflect on a changing research environment and set out priorities for the year ahead.

This week we expect the Comprehensive Spending Review to give some indication of the Government’s intention to honour its previous commitment to spend £22bn on research and innovation by 2024/25 and to fund research at a level of 2.4% of GDP by 2027. It is anticipated that funding will be strategically directed towards collaborative research with industry to support post-COVID recovery and the impact of Brexit. It is also expected to reflect the government’s levelling-up agenda, although exactly what that means remains to be seen. It is possible that bridging socioeconomic gaps within regions could be relevant in this respect and could provide significant opportunity for Reading, where stark within-region gaps are evident. Delays in achieving associated status for Horizon Europe until the Northern Ireland issue is resolved will be challenging, and while the new Education Secretary strongly supports the internationalisation agenda, there are tensions between this and tighter requirements due to national security.

There is an increasing focus on research culture, both from funders and the government. In 2020, the Russell Group’s ‘Realising Our Potential’ report defined research culture as a rigorous but inclusive environment, emphasising a ‘positive leadership, positive culture’, approach. Described as a toolkit and rich with case studies, it has been generally well-received.

In the same year, the Wellcome Trust published a report on what researchers think about the culture they work in, based on a survey of more than 4,000 researchers. It warned against focussing on narrow concepts of impact with too little value on how results are achieved and made some specific recommendations about changes in funding structures, better representation on panels, clearer career roadmaps for ECRs and training to help managers achieve a positive research culture.

Finally, the government’s R&D People and Culture Strategy, described as a ‘call to action’, was published in July 2021 and presents a series of short- and long-term goals, including a Good Practice Exchange to bring people together from across the sector to address topics such as talent, bullying and harassment, diversity and inclusion, recruitment and leadership and bringing people from various backgrounds with various lived experiences into the research and innovation system by increasing the accessibility of R&D.

There has been much commentary on the strategy from across the sector and beyond, with some suggesting that while it acknowledges a range of challenges, there are few tangible commitments or actions for improving research culture. The strategy was championed by the then Science Minister, Amanda Solloway, so it will be interesting to see whether her successor, George Freeman, is as committed to this agenda.

As we consider our priorities for the next few years, it is clear that building on strategic partnerships and working with business will be key to positioning ourselves to address the anticipated opportunities and strategic direction for research funding. We are developing a new impact strategy, based on insight from the Building Outstanding Impact Support Programme, and also a Public Engagement Plan. Now that the REF submission is complete, we will be reviewing elements of the Research 2020 Plan, including how we peer review research outputs, the effectiveness of the research planning process, and how best to support research, and researchers, in a changing external environment.

Parveen Yaqoob & Dominik Zaum

Pro-Vice-Chancellors Research & Innovation