Working together to meet the funding challenge for soft-funded researchers

17 August 2020 | Professor Sue Harrison

Dear colleagues and students

I am writing to update you on the work we have been doing to find solutions to the difficult funding position of soft-funded researchers and research groups. These difficulties have become particularly acute during COVID-19.

The funding challenge

One of the greatest uncertainties created by COVID-19 is, of course, research funding. We are preparing for a significant decrease in government funding next year: steep budget cuts have been announced for the National Research Foundation and the National Department of Higher Education & Training, including Science & Innovation. At the same time, international funders and donors are experiencing their own financial challenges. Competition for funding is fierce, particularly as these organisations may feel the pressure to focus on their local environments.

Last year, the University of Cape Town (UCT) signed research contracts worth a total of R1.7 billion. At this point in the year we have about the same amount of funding as we did in 2019 (approximately R700 million as at the end of June) but we have signed fewer contracts. We are expecting an impact on total funding in the second half of the year. In addition, we need to cover costs in situations where student and postdoc stipends come to an end before the completion of their research, due to delays caused by COVID-19. We don't have an immediate solution, but we have been engaging actively with funders to try to mitigate this problem.

UCT is, of course, deeply affected as an institution by the financial impact of the pandemic on our own operations.

The scale of the soft-funded challenge is significant, with more than 1 000 people at UCT whose salaries depend on external research contracts. Their work is critical, not only to our research enterprise but also in terms of its immeasurable impact on our society.

We are committed to supporting the research enterprise, including soft-funded research, as best we can. To do so, we need to take a careful and wise approach. Here is what we have done so far.

When the university went into lockdown, I established a research task team to identify potential routes to support soft-funded research during this difficult time, in addition to the task team handling our return to research. I have also written about the work that we have been doing to unpack the approach to funders.

We need to acknowledge the likelihood that UCT may not be able to continue supporting all soft-funded academic and research staff and their projects financially, but by working together with you, we will stabilise the research enterprise.

To this end, we have a drafted a policy that outlines specific plans to provide some support for soft-funded research groups whose work and funding have been interrupted, to create some stability over these difficult times. This support is proposed to be based on a set of guidelines that looks at the targeted needs of researchers and research groups; the mitigating actions taken by the researchers themselves; the potential of the researchers and research groups to add value in the future; and what they have contributed in the past. We are taking the draft policy through the necessary approval processes and look forward to being able to confirm these arrangements soon.

An institutional commitment and joint responsibility

As a research-intensive university, UCT values our soft-funded researchers, research support staff as part of the soft-funded research enterprise, and our wish is to retain them. Skilled staff members are a prized asset to the university and our broader community.

We have held an ongoing discussion with UCT’s Human Resources and Finance departments since the start of the pandemic. Both departments are equally committed to finding solutions: they have expressed their continued support for soft-funded researchers and are working closely with us to find the most appropriate route forward.

Our overall approach involves the executives and researchers working together to find that route as a joint responsibility. In my engagements with researchers, I have been really impressed by the thought that has been applied to mitigating the impact of the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves. UCT researchers are rising to the challenge, showing considerable agility and commitment. As the pandemic continues and its financial impacts extend to the long term, so will our need to rely on each other to help meet the challenge.

This is a difficult space, but it has allowed us to re-examine how we do things. We are looking hard at how we can find innovative and agile approaches to build our research strengths and to extend the reach of their impact – not only through our choice of what we focus on doing, but how we do it, together. I invite you to contribute your thoughts and ideas. We are very open to listening to you and value your input.


Professor Sue Harrison
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation

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