A lot has happened since my last blog, including the first (and last?) anniversary of living with COVID-19. 

First, we are (almost) done with REF2021. On March 29th, we clicked “submit” on the REF submission system and sent our information to Research England for assessment. REF2021 represents years of hard work across the whole organisation, including 1407 outputs from 603 staff across the last seven years. These outputs include articles in prestigious journals as well as physical and digital artifacts created at Portsmouth representing the wide range of our academic and practice research. Our submission also included 54 case studies of the impact of our research, each one demonstrating the real world contribution we make to our society and planet. Our research helps protect endangered species (pangolins, elephants, orangutans), improves our health and wellbeing, and works for a better society by protecting women in developing countries and educating millions through our world-leading citizen science projects. 

Our REF2021 represents an amazing audit of our collective research and innovation over much of the last decade, and in the coming months we will look to advertise these achievements both for ourselves and external audiences. We also have a few missing bits to our submission that need finalising, with the work complete by the summer. Again, I send my thanks to all involved and we will know the outcome of our hard work in a year’s time. 

March also saw the publication of our first Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) results. This new framework sits alongside REF and TEF as the three pillars for assessing the mission of universities, namely teaching, research and knowledge exchange. KEF, unlike the rest, will be an annual event and will be mostly data-driven across seven ‘perspectives’ of knowledge exchange activity from intellectual property to public engagement. Moreover, universities are grouped into clusters of similar organisations, and then compared within these clusters. We are in the largest cluster (E) with 28 similar universities described as “large universities with broad discipline portfolio across STEM and non-STEM generating excellent research across all disciplines”.    

Our performance in KEF is solid, being in the top half of our cluster in all seven perspectives. We are the only university in our cluster with such a strong foundation across this broad range of knowledge exchange. Our best perspectives were “Skills, Enterprise and Entrepreneurism” and “Research Partnerships”. Such an outcome is to be expected as much of our knowledge exchange activities are local, “bottom-up” initiatives driven by the expertise and interests of our staff. As we look forward to being the top modern university by 2030, it is clear we need to build on this foundation and through some targeted investments, look to create critical mass in some of these perspectives to become the best within our cluster. That work is already underway and I hope to report more on that in months to come. 

The importance of KEF and knowledge exchange is again demonstrated in the on-going government commitment to increasing spending in research and innovation to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This commitment was reaffirmed recently with an extra £250 million in funding for 2020/21 for research collaborations and on-going research. Much of this extra funding in coming years will be directed at applied research to drive our economy and tackle productivity gaps. 

That said, there remains confusion about the practical and financial details of funding for a range of programmes we have become accustomed to. For example, as part of measures to implement a reduction in Government spending on International Development, BEIS has instructed UKRI and Research England that there will be no Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) after 2021-2022, and that 2021-2022 allocations will be reduced from £250 million to £130 million. The speed and extent of these funding cuts will lead to the premature end of important research projects right across UK universities.  In the University of Portsmouth’s case, we have been informed that from July 2021 funding for our own GCRF projects will be cut by 75%.  This is disappointing as we have been using this funding to build capacity and expertise in working with overseas communities to tackle vital societal problems, e.g. modern slavery in the textile trade in India and the plastic pollution in Kenya and Bangladesh.

There also remains some confusion over who pays for our on-going membership of Horizon Europe. This was negotiated as part of the UK-EU trade deal in December and was a welcome relief to many as it allows us to continue many of our EU collaborations we’ve established over the last few decades. However, it appears BEIS, and thus UKRI, may have to pay the bill meaning a large cut in overall funding available to UK researchers. Paradoxically, this would mean that one effect of the UK’s departure from the EU would be to transfer control of a significant part of the UKRI budget to the EU. We await news of this outcome with many eminent researchers and learned societies raising this concern with the government. We have written to our local MPs to raise these concerns with them as well. 

Finally, the new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA) is coming soon and is expected to make about £800 million available by 2025 for high-risk, high-payoff research supporting ground-breaking discoveries that could transform people’s lives. It will be intriguing to see what ARIA funds but let’s hope it’s not a replacement for the funding gaps in GCRF and UKRI.