Developing research talent in a challenging funding landscape

The UK’s universities are key players in terms of domestic research and innovation. As detailed in a 2014 report published by Universities UK, they carry out nearly three quarters of publicly-funded R&D (74.3%), over one quarter (26.5%) of all R&D undertaken in the UK and are largely responsible for the UK’s world-leading research performance. As a provider of research funding information to UK and European universities, Idox attended the annual Vitae Researcher Development International (RDI) Conference in Manchester to gain insight into the evolving world of researcher skills and their professional and career development.

Global context for developing researchers

The Vitae RDI conference is global in its appeal and attracts delegates from across the world. The challenges and opportunities affecting researchers as they develop are universal, with the expectation that, to thrive, researchers should be open to the possibilities of a global research environment.

Dr Irmela Brach, policy officer at the European Commission’s DG for Research and Innovation opened the conference’s plenary session with an exploration of the evolution of the European Research Area (ERA) and the challenges it faces. ERA is geared towards removing barriers and is described by the Commission as ‘a unified area open to the world, in which scientific knowledge, technology and researchers circulate freely’. The concept of openness is a key theme in the next chapter of ERA, which was set out in the ‘Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World’ speech by Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, in June of this year.

The Commission’s European Charter and Code of Conduct is a key pillar of the ERA. Compliance with H2020 Article 32 on recruitment and working conditions for researchers supports their career development and recognition as professionals. The shortage of researchers in particular research disciplines, localism in recruitment, and gender parity are amongst the challenges that the Commission seeks to address. The Human Resources Strategy for Researchers (also known as HRS4R) is the mechanism through which the Commission supports institutions to implement the Charter and Code. Its HR Excellence in Research Award rewards compliance while its award holders showcase Europe as an attractive place for researchers from all over the globe. Benefits of the Award to institutions include its value to funding applications, particularly European funding.

It follows that working conditions for researchers across Europe, stability of employment contracts, merit-based recruitment and career development are high on the European agenda for research and innovation. The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 published by the World Economic Forum concluded that it would take another 81 years for the world to close the economic gender gap and for the resulting growth benefits to be realised. The implication for the global research community is that the provision of a supportive and equal playing field is not only critical to the development and success of individual researchers and institutions but also the global economy, now and in the future. Policy developments such as the European Commission’s Charter and Code show a commitment to supporting the personal, professional and career development of researchers. Tying these principles to financial sanctions has raised the status of researcher development and provided an incentive for universities to grow the support offered to research staff.

Strategic directions in postgraduate research education

There has been a significant focus on career support and development for early career researchers in the UK in recent years and, on a positive note, it remains ahead of the curve in Europe in this respect. However, many non-academic challenges remain, a number of which relate to employment terms and conditions, as well as sources of funding. Current issues have raised broader questions about the stability and sustainability of research careers in the UK.

Significant cuts to public spending in the UK, including the inflationary erosion of the science and research budget supporting research and researchers, continue to present challenges to the research community. In addition, last-minute cuts to Horizon 2020 have added to the financial concerns of institutions across Europe. In the UK, eyes are now on November’s Spending Review and Autumn Statement, with fears that fiscal constraints are about to get much tougher. Furthermore, concerns regarding a possible shake-up of the UK Research Councils and HEFCE have heightened fears not just about the research budget but how research funding is delivered.

HESA data used in Universities UK’s funding challenge report shows that the number of students on postgraduate courses in the UK and Europe has declined. This decline is in contrast to competitor nations, where growth has remained steady. Speaking at the Vitae conference, Chris Millward, Director of Policy at HEFCE, highlighted finance as a key theme within the postgraduate research population. The recent Government consultation on support for postgraduate study highlighted the fact that 37% of postgraduate research students self-fund.

Autumn Statement 2014 saw the Chancellor, George Osborne, announce a new loan system for postgraduate taught Master’s students, while at Budget 2015 the Government announced its intention to review how to broaden and strengthen support for postgraduate research. The Review is looking at ways to leverage Government funding through partnerships with the industrial and charitable sectors. This includes exploring options for widening participation in the funding of research through, for example, crowdfunding platforms (particularly donation-based and equity-based).

Sources of funding for postgraduates are included on Idox’s Open 4 Learning portal which allows academic institutions to integrate into their own websites funding opportunities for which existing or potential students may be eligible. Assistant Director of Student Services at Birmingham City University Matt Till describes Open 4 Learning as ‘an excellent tool for undergraduates and postgraduates alike’. Robert Lawrie, Director of Scholarships and Student Funding, University of Edinburgh describes how ‘there are literally thousands of external funding bodies out there that students might be eligible to apply for’. The University worked with Idox to create its bespoke Open 4 Learning portal which builds on ‘a simple registration process and search functionality’.

According to Chris Millward, when taking a long-term view, the new UK Government’s priority is productivity, and evidence suggests high demand for postgraduate level skills – particularly within the international marketplace. The Government’s Productivity Plan highlights productivity as ‘the challenge of our time’. Launched in July of this year, the Plan sets out the Government’s proposals for ‘world-leading universities, open to all who can benefit’, with science and skills highlighted as fundamental drivers of growth. However, access to finance acts as a barrier to productivity. The HEFCE-backed Postgraduate Experience Project, funded as part of the first phase of its postgraduate support scheme, found that factors such as fees and living costs were a source of anxiety to students. Although a step in the right direction, the jury is still out on whether the current set of Government policies are enough to reverse the decline in postgraduate numbers. Finding the most viable funding option for supporting postgraduate researchers is undeniably key to recruiting and retaining research talent.

The research funding environment

The funding environment for universities in research and postgraduate research training has become more challenging in recent years. In this respect, the UK’s research councils have a role to play in fostering an employment environment that supports more attractive and sustainable research careers. As noted in a Vitae conference session led by Gary Reed, Director Business Research & Innovation at Aberystwyth University, there is growing consensus that the UK needs to close the investment gap on research and innovation. There are calls for long-term certainty on public investment and real terms increases to the research budget to bring the UK’s investment in line with international R&D averages. There are implications too for individuals and the researcher ‘pipeline’ – given that the doctoral candidates of today are potentially the academics of the future.

Helping academics and researchers in identifying relevant funding opportunities, particularly those who are at an early stage of their careers, is a key focus of progressive universities. Through its GRANTfinder and RESEARCHconnect funding products, Idox is supporting a growing number of universities across Europe who are looking for a cost-effective approach to this requirement. As Gill King, Funding Opportunities Officer at the University of Hull comments:

‘Our decision to subscribe to GRANTfinder 4 Education and RESEARCHconnect was influenced by the wide range of content available through the system, its ease of use, presentation of information and the ability to share information quickly and easily. Users are benefitting in a variety of ways from the system’s functionality and flexibility of use, as well as the range of opportunities contained within it, from local to EU level and beyond.’


What is clear is that the challenges facing researchers mean new approaches must be found to enable them to reach their potential and make empowered career choices. The sector is currently facing issues in the funding landscape which could impact the flow of people through from PGT to PGR and then on to PDRA (research staff) and ultimately academic posts. Relieving this growing pressure on institutions and individuals will require taking a sharper aim at the issues and solutions to them – something that institutions with confidence about financial support mechanisms will be best placed to do.

By Kathryn Andrews and Sion Stedman, Idox

Idox supports further and higher education institutions and researchers in their bid for funding via a dedicated suite of solutions including GRANTfinder 4 Education and RESEARCHconnect. For further details, please email

A Storify compilation of Tweets from the Vitae Researcher Development International Conference can be found here.

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