July 23, 2020, by Rob Ounsworth
Town halls and shaping our vision for research after COVID-19
Update from Professor Dame Jessica Corner
Around 1,500 colleagues have so far participated in virtual town halls for researchers and I am delighted that these online forums are proving a success.
The last town hall for the wider research community in the current series took place on Friday 17 July, when we asked attendees to consider the future of research at the University of Nottingham.
What benefits and opportunities have emerged from the COVID-19 situation that we should look to preserve or build on in the future?
At our town halls – themselves an innovative response to lockdown – it was gratifying to hear many positives arising from new ways of virtual and remote working, including wider participation in team meetings, encouraging collaboration across disciplines and borders, welcoming colleagues who were previously unable to join meetings and contribute to discussions, and a stronger sense of community. Isolation has forced us to think about how we communicate with each other, and this is one of the key learnings I would like to develop as we emerge from lockdown and build a more supportive and inclusive research culture.
Other positives include our response to the crisis: our ability to quickly bring together teams and successfully bid with partners for COVID-19 related funds – recent studies include evaluations of the impact of the pandemic on working-class women and the UK’s waste sector.
What are the main challenges facing research, and for the sector?
The inability to access labs, libraries and other research facilities both on and off-campus has been an ongoing source of worry, and I have found forums such as the town halls, as well as meeting researchers in person in newly opened buildings, are absolutely essential to ensure a better understanding of the impact of the virus on so many aspects of our lives.
I am also mindful that the pace of our recovery programme may be a source of frustration. For example, some researchers ask why their labs remain shut while others are back in business. There are a great many factors affecting a building reopening, including the numbers of people working inside and using its services. As well as COVID protocols, there is a lengthy list of health and safety checks including flushing for legionella, and electrical, fire alarm and ventilation checks.
While colleagues in some cases have been able to adapt their studies, for many this is very difficult, adding to stress. We will follow up on suggestions for ensuring that mental health support is available.
At last week’s town hall (the last we will hold on a Friday following a move to Teams-free Fridays), Development and Sustainability Director Andy Nolan once again thanked our research community for its understanding and patience as his outstanding colleagues work with Health and Safety and site operations teams on the complex task of making buildings and research spaces safe. Please see more in the recovery section of my update.
How would you like to be involved as we start to shape a strategic development plan for research?
Your insightful responses will inform a wider consultation beginning this autumn on how we should refresh and renew our current research strategy for the challenges ahead.
While our current research strategy has delivered much to celebrate – our Beacons of Excellence, strengthened inter-disciplinarity, enhanced facilities and growing international collaboration – the world has changed and we must continue to anticipate and adapt.
Some clear messages have emerged from our town halls, including calls for our research community to be involved at the earliest stage of our planning for a renewed research strategy. A heightened sense of community, new virtual tools and the move towards freer conversations in more inclusive forums will all support this essential consultation exercise.
This is also an opportunity for the University to re-affirm world-class research as a priority, and we will listen to you as we look at how best to provide the time and support for the delivery of this goal alongside teaching and other commitments.
A further town hall for Anne McLaren and Nottingham research fellows also took place yesterday, and it was once more heartening to hear our fellows’ insights into shaping our vision for research.
As we begin planning our renewed strategy for research, and prepare for the opportunities of a post-COVID world, please look out for further town halls after the summer.
Research and development roadmap
We are also asking our researchers to feed into the UK’s research and development roadmap.
UKRI is consulting on this vision until 12 August. Given the impact of changed funding priorities, it is important to ensure our voices are heard as an institution, as well as through our communities and as individuals.
Joe was joined at Friday’s town hall by Pip Peakman, Director of Research and Innovation, who said: “The road map is an opportunity for us to influence research investment and build pathways from our discoveries to economic and societal impact.
“The ability for cross-disciplinary teams to respond to ‘moonshot’ challenges is likely to become more important, together with an emphasis on attracting and retaining world-class talent and building international partnerships.”
Recovery: my thanks for hard work and patience
As reported this week by Professor Andy Long, who leads the Recovery Group, we now have 44 buildings and research facilities open. The latest of these include University Park Campus’ Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre and the GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry, on Jubilee Campus.
The reopening of buildings has allowed the University to resume its Driving Research and Innovation project, which provides technical support to SME businesses from sectors including food and drink, precision manufacturing and chemistry who need access to scientific expertise and facilities.
Work also continues on the phased re-opening of library buildings to provide access to print resources and key services. Hallward Library is now open offering book returns, online scanning requests and click and collect access to items available on the library shelves.
Visit the Libraries website for how to place a request, opening times and re-opening plans.
We ask that Faculty Operations Directors and Heads of Schools continue to keep an eye on the re-opening schedule to establish when their buildings are scheduled to come online, and start planning and risk assessments for this four weeks ahead of reopening. Collaboration with colleagues who led on already reopened buildings will also help this process.
We stress again that is imperative that colleagues only return to campus when notified by their manager.
Thank you once again for your patience – and huge thanks to all the dedicated teams who are contributing to this process.
Research is stepping up, on and off campus
Katie Reynolds has reflected on her experience of lockdown and returning to her lab. Since I met Katie in the re-opened Chemistry Building, she has had her PhD confirmed and graduates tomorrow – congratulations!
Further congratulations to Guilhem Reyt, a research fellow with the Future Food Beacon, who has returned to the labs at Plant Sciences and was able to complete experiments to secure a publication in the prestigious Current Biology.
It is also great to hear that Guilhem’s School of Biosciences colleague, BBSRC-funded PhD student Johanna Astrand, is among those who are recommencing fieldwork after full safety assessments. Johanna spent two weeks at KWS Seeds in Cambridgeshire, where she travelling by car and stayed in a B&B.
Geographer Laura Turner, a Natural Environment Research Council Envision-funded PhD student, is planning fieldwork in Greenland with the University of Aarhus, investigating the effects of precipitation on plant roots in the Arctic.
The University is meanwhile drawing up an approvals process for overseas research trips to countries exempt from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s ‘all but essential travel’ advice. The new guidance will also take into consideration any COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Once a trip has been approved through the new process, then the University insurance will be available.
Face coverings inside buildings
From Monday 27 July, the University will be making face coverings compulsory inside buildings on campus. There will be a number of exceptions, such as small office spaces, for eating and for those with medical conditions. The policy on this will be available on the CV-19 Recovery Planning webpages pages tomorrow (Friday 24 July).
Our faculty Digital Research Specialists are reminding colleagues, especially those working remotely and collaborating virtually: please get in touch for support, guidance and solutions.
This includes access to research data, University resources, specialist software or for more computing power from home. For example, with “Windows Virtual Desktop” you can remotely access software that has on-site only licences or that requires direct access to the R drive.
For more information on available digital solutions for research please visit the team’s SharePoint site or watch one of the webinars on topics such as: “Where can I store my research data?”, “How can I do research virtually and remotely?” , “Why use the Automated Transcription Service” and “What digital tools are available to support my research?”. The latest full list of upcoming digital research seminars can be found here.
Postgraduate researchers and study extensions
On 9 July, the University offered a total of six months extension of registration, with no additional fees payable by the student, to all UK doctoral PGRs whose registered period of study would have originally concluded between 1 March 2020 and 1 October 2021.
We meanwhile continue to encourage PGRs, with the support of their supervisors, to adjust and adapt research plans in order to complete as scheduled, where possible.
Please note: MRes PGRs may have received notification of the University’s offer of a six-month extension. However this offer applies only to UK doctoral PGRs.
If you have a query related to extensions application process, please contact Student Services.
In all cases, please remain in touch with your supervisor and the school’s director of postgraduate research, who are your primary contacts.
For advice on visa extensions, please contact the visa and immigration team.
I do hope that the certainty provided by the extensions will help alleviate the considerable anxiety experienced by a valued part of our University research community.
UKRI funding for costed grant extensions
We have received confirmation from UKRI of funding for costed grant extensions, plus approval for the re-purposing of existing grants, and, following further guidance from UKRI, will outline how this will be allocated.
Only grants ending before September 2021 are eligible. We are still confirming the terms and conditions with UKRI, but I will be writing to all eligible UKRI grant holders in the next week to confirm the details of the scheme and the approach we will be taking.
In the meantime, investigators should continue to look at mitigations to manage delays on grants such as no-cost extensions, re-profiling budgets or revising work plans. Please contact your local support team or Research and Innovation post award coordinator for support.
I am delighted to again highlight the successes of our researchers.
Gisli Jenkins, Professor of Experimental Medicine, is sharing his expertise as part of a £8.4m UK research study into the long-term health effects of COVID-19.
SurePulse Medical Ltd, a University spin-out company, landed £1m from private investors to explore foreign markets for its revolutionary newborn baby heartbeat monitoring device, which was developed by teams led by Professor Barrie Hayes-Gill and Dr Don Sharkey in the faculties of Engineering and Medicine and Health Sciences.
Meanwhile, the University has secured its first British Academy Global Professorship. Harvard University’s Siddharth Kara, a leading expert in modern slavery, is to join the Rights Lab and the School of Sociology and Social Policy on a four-year fellowship.
I would also like to thank Professor Andy Noyes, who is competing his service as Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, Social Sciences. Professor John Gathergood of the School of Economics is taking over the reins and I look forward to working with him.
Thank you once again for your support and goodwill. As we move towards recovery I will look forward to further conversations with you to help shape our strategy for research for the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Professor Dame Jessica Corner
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange