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COVID-19 Funding and Higher Education Responses


March 26, 2020 | 6 min read |

Sarah Richardson, Group Editor, Research Professional News

Over the last week, universities around the world have continued closing premises amid efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, as biomedical research increasingly focuses on tackling the virus and the COVID-19 disease it causes, new funding calls have been launched and other research work put on hold.

This latest rundown of the biggest global headlines from our specialist news service, Research Professional News, highlights the main developments over the past seven days.

Research and funding to combat COVID-19

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has called for better international coordination “to remove regulatory hurdles for vaccines and treatments” during the COVID-19 pandemic. OECD secretary general Angel Gurría laid out a four-point plan for how governments should collaborate to deal with the crisis, likening the effort required to a global version of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War.

Researchers in eight European countries have launched a randomised clinical trial to test treatments for COVID-19. However, influential MEP Christian Ehler told Research Professional News that the European Commission should be doing more with the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D program to help combat the pandemic. And the EU’s medicines regulator has warned that research organisations across Europe are undertaking studies of the pandemic that might not deliver useful results because they are too small.

In the UK, a nationwide consortium of clinicians and scientists is embarking on a £20 million genome-sequencing quest to map how COVID-19 spreads.

South Africa has committed R4 million (US$240,000) for domestic research projects to curb the spread of the virus.

A new analysis of academic search trends, carried out for Research Professional News, has revealed a surge of interest in papers on coronavirus since the outbreak of the COVID-19 respiratory disease. Most of the interest in “coronavirus” papers came from China initially and then from the United States, according to the analysis, which was carried out by the company Clarivate Analytics.

Response to the coronavirus around the world

United States

Research laboratories in the United States are shutting down all but essential work and limiting access by researchers as attempts continue to limit unnecessary personal interactions.


In the UK, the research assessment exercise the Research Excellence Framework has been put on hold “until further notice” as the fallout from the pandemic grows. Submissions to the exercise, which takes place every seven years, were due in November.

The UK’s government has imposed strict social distancing measures but has not ordered the closure of universities. Despite this, many institutions are closing premises to non-essential research activities, after already closing to face-to-face teaching.

The country’s largest funder of health research, the National Institute for Health Research,  has paused other research at National Health Service and social care sites to enable more focus on the coronavirus, in a move that has been welcomed by a group representing major medical research charities.

Cancer Research UK has become the latest funder delay grant activities, deferring all funding panels and committees to the second half of the year in the wake of the outbreak. Meanwhile some of the country’s top learned societies have partially suspended activities, but insist their funding activities will continue as normal.

In Germany, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the country’s largest public research funder, has launched special measures to help scientists during the pandemic, including simplified budget extensions.

In Ireland, a number of the country’s principal funding bodies issued a joint statement to reassure researchers that deadlines and budgets will be more flexible in order to help science continue during the pandemic.

Research and higher education institutions have been told to adopt a spirit of collaboration over the move to working online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, by the European Universities Association.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia’s government has announced a support program to help the country’s universities overcome the challenges presented by travel bans and limits on public gatherings.

In New Zealand, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has announced Level 4 lockdown restrictions for the country, including the closure of libraries, museums and schools for at least four weeks to contain the spread of the virus.


Universities across Malaysia closed their doors on 18 March for at least two weeks as part of a nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Other coronavirus developments

Over 120 million students in higher education across the world are unable to attend classes due to the coronavirus, according to the latest data from Unesco, the UN agency for education. In response, Unesco has launched a ‘Global COVID-19 Education Coalition’ to help deliver remote learning workarounds for courses, with technology partners including Microsoft.

The World Health Organization and Europe’s particle physics laboratory Cern are among organisations asking staff and others to be vigilant about hackers taking advantage of the pandemic to launch cyber-attacks.

Publishers are also facing increased pressure to become open access, as a group of sector bodies including higher education IT firm Jisc and UK vice-chancellors’ body Universities UK joined forces to urge all those who publish digital content to make teaching and learning materials free during the ongoing outbreak.

You can follow breaking news on the response of the higher education and research sectors to coronavirus at, where we are publishing daily updates.