KE policy in the time of Covid-19, business as usual?

[Week 5 not in the office. A table full of your typical domestic trappings replaces a desk piled high with papers, reports and post-it notes. The view outside this ‘office’ window is not a corporate car-park, there is no communal water-cooler at which to meet your future spouse (true story), and dress-code has gone decidedly casual. We keep calm and KE on.] 


One of the silver linings of the past few weeks of working from home is seeing how universities and research organisations have stepped up to play such a vital role in combatting the COVID-19 crisis, whether that’s in terms of identifying a vaccine, providing PPE equipment, advising on mental health, or providing advice to distressed businesses. This is KE in action; pivoting to respond to the crisis by leveraging long-standing relationships, reaching out a hand to organisations and communities in need, moving up a gear to make things happen. The sheer number of examples demonstrate the value of long-term investment in the research base and also in KE capacity, mainly of people. This is why our policy work is important and why our ‘Promote’ mission incorporates an objective to ‘inform and influence’ KE-related policy alongside promoting the success of our member organisations and the individual expertise of KE professionals.  

The latter is particularly important because policy at PrA is not just about what I do – far from it. Many of our members, particularly at Director-level, engage with sector stakeholders to talk about KE and the kinds of funding and support that’s needed. That might be through sitting on a steering group, participating in a working group, speaking at a sector event, or contributing to a consultation response. One of my responsibilities is to try and capture all these interactions so that we, PraxisAuril, can articulate needs at a sector level. 

At a time when the world seems to have turned upside down, is there still a need for this activity? Couldn’t we all just take a pause and focus on more practical things, like putting our training courses online? After all, this crisis too will pass.  

Well, in fact, there is still quite a lot of ‘business as usual’ going on which I find reassuring. Not only are the sector’s major funders still considering how to improve metrics to assess KE outcomes but they still want to hear from PrA members in those consultations, for example. Today, we have the launch of the KE Concordat to which PraxisAuril members have made significant contributions. Next week, I will be joining a panel to discuss KE and Innovation in Wales, next month PraxisAuril volunteers will workshop novel evaluation methods for HEIF (continuation of pre-COVID-19 work). I am enjoying a new project with the British Physiological Society’s to investigate KE from their disciplinary base. I need to draft our input to the UKRI Open Access consultation and considering what we could contribute to the inquiry on a UK ARPA recently launched by the Science & Technolocy Select Committee. This looks like your average week in KE policy at PraxisAuril! 

What is different is that also pressing hard on my attention are the seemingly daily announcements and analyses about COVID-19; how different parts of our community are responding and coping, and what it might need to survive post-crisis. KE done in rapid response mode may have implications for how KE in ‘normal’ mode is done. So my reading list is only getting longer. Keeping up with sector analysis on Research Professional and Wonke – to mention but two – is becoming a full-time job, but it’s important to keep KE in context and see the big picture – the future of universities, the R&D target, its role in regional regeneration, and in our cultural and creative life – so that we don’t become too focused on any one aspect of KE and understand how it facilitates relationships, engagements and enterprise across the UK’s economy, society and culture.  

I’m conscious that much of our work is done ‘under the radar’ and that needs to change so that PraxisAuril and its members get the recognition they deserve. And it’s even more important that we share our insights during the crisis so that the right support can be delivered either by flexing existing frameworks as Research England has done with the KEF and HEIF, or introducing new programmes as the Government is doing (Future Fund). That will mean that our great KE activities can carry on post-crisis. And we still need to focus on the longer-term – particularly helping the economic recovery and continuing to focus on the 2.4% target.  So here are just some of the things we’ve been doing over the past few weeks in response to the COVID-19 crisis:  

  1. Sean Fielding, our Chair, has gathered examples of over 20 very early stage spin-out companies facing difficulties as investment dries up, explaining their needs to Innovate UK. These are companies that are not eligible for the recently announced ‘Future Fund’ (on which more to follow). 
  2. Amplifying the ‘voice of the user’ for Research England. The new flexibility of HEIF announced last week is welcome, but will it be enough to maintain KE activity (particularly that which is not COVID-19 critical)? What else might be needed to see KE teams through the crisis?  
  3. As commercial activity grinds to a halt, how do we sustain R&D collaboration and schemes such as KTP? Alasdair Cameron has engaged with Innovate UK on how to treat KTP associates and furlough.  
  4. As universities and research organisations respond to acute short-term needs, what should the Ts&Cs for equipment loans be? This was one of the first discussions we saw on our Directors’ list as the crisis unfolded.  
  5. Using Fast-Track collaboration models (Lambert, developed for the Ebola crisis), and royalty-free licences (such as EasyAccess IP, developed by the TT community); all the time thinking about how we retain speed and flexibility post-crisis without losing sight of good IP management. This includes engaging with the IPO, a key stakeholder.  

It's too early to look much further ahead at the moment but we do know that there will be a Spending Review at some point and KE will be under the spotlight as part of the Government’s desire to see impact from research investment, get back to the industrial strategy programme, and level up the regions. We need to start assembling the evidence for that Review now and, really, what better time when the value of KE is being demonstrated on a daily basis and we have an opportunity to set a ‘new normal’?  

I hope that lots of members will make time to contribute to our short survey on how you’re coping in the crisis but, more than that, I hope that many of you will continue to engage with me as I pursue KE policy business as usual.

Complete the survey    


Tamsin Mann
Director of Policy and Communications, PraxisAuril