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How June 2020 became the busiest month in history

Simon Kerridge describes how slipped deadlines plus rapid-response calls equalled a record amount of work

As the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown began, I was working in the spare room, using an ironing board for a desk. It was height adjustable, sure, but on the cramped side.

At least I had a dedicated room to work in. Other colleagues weren’t so lucky. Or they were dealing with bad internet, kids to homeschool, you name it. One shared parenting duties with her husband in the day and would then make up the lost work time between 10pm and 2am (not, I hasten to add, at my behest).

We managed to find workarounds to most of the little technological niggles, such as a lack of multiscreen set-ups, but the problems of working from home did not improve much during the first lockdown in spring and early summer. 

We were all faced with suboptimal conditions, offset only by time saved on commuting and ironing.

Then there was all the extra work. What do research managers and administrators do? Well, we support research activity: the grants and contracts team at Kent is responsible for costing and pricing proposals, sign-off, submission, contract changes, and providing advice on a whole host of other issues, such as expenditure eligibility.

When lockdown arrived, research funders started to ponder the implications. Would research be able to be conducted and to what extent? Would there be extensions and would they come at a cost? Would funders cover furlough top-up costs? Would they be flexible with their terms and conditions?

Season of adjustment

Each funder took a slightly different approach. Some varied their approach between funding schemes. Some even changed their changes as lockdown was extended.

In effect, every single project in the portfolio needed to be checked, and a conversation had with the principal investigator about what they wanted and what they could have. Perhaps the work plan could be adjusted—but did the funder need to approve?

This would have been an extraordinary additional workload at any time. 

To compensate, at least some of the proposal deadlines were extended. On the other hand, as soon as funders were able, they also released short-turnaround calls for Covid-19 research.

This was great, but it raised all the questions that come up when calls are put together at short notice: “What about X?” “Ah, well, there is no guidance on X yet.” You get the idea. In addition, sometimes funders could not set up their IT systems in time to field the proposals in response to their calls. 

Don’t worry about using the electronic submission system, we were told, just email the proposal. This was a bit of a challenge for our proposal-submission governance, but we had few complaints about a lighter-touch submission system.

Summer’s perfect storm

As those new calls went out, all the delayed call deadlines were also approaching. 

June was the perfect storm: we were checking existing projects against updated funder guidance, applying for short-deadline Covid-19 calls and delayed regular calls, all while keeping on top of the usual cycle of deadlines and work.

Example table

This bulge of activity shows up most clearly if you compare 2020’s pattern of proposal submissions with the average for the previous four years. After an unsurprising and marked decrease in March, April and May were busier than normal. And then June was the big one—our busiest-ever month.

We submitted 24 per cent more proposals than in the previous record month, November 2017 (November is always busy), equating to a staggering 174 per cent increase on a normal June. All, of course, while dealing with everything else going on, and under Covid-19 working conditions.

Clearly, the University of Kent was not alone—I have heard similar stories from colleagues across the UK and indeed the world. I’m hugely grateful to research managers
and administrators everywhere, and in particular the amazing team at Kent, for their outstanding commitment to supporting research.

Their work often goes unnoticed, and they sometimes feel unappreciated. But without them, research would not happen. Let’s hope this December does not buck this month’s traditional status as the quietest for proposal submissions, and we all get some downtime.

That would give time to nominate a colleague for a Hidden REF award. It’d be a small way of acknowledging the university staff who, in myriad ways, many of them invisible from the outside, have risen to the challenge of the greatest disruption to the world in most of our lifetimes.

Happy new year, and thank goodness for research. 

Simon Kerridge is director of research policy and support at the University of Kent

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight