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Prioritisation of research leave following COVID-19

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The following message was sent to all research colleagues from Parveen Yaqoob and Dominik Zaum, Pro-Vice-Chancellors for Research and Innovation.

Dear All,

Last April we wrote to you, together with the PVCs for Education & Student Experience, about ways to create capacity to help respond to the additional demands arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. This included the suspension of most research leave for 2020/21. We are grateful to colleagues across the University for the positive way in which they responded to this request.

While not of equal relevance for all disciplines, research leave is an important aspect of our research environment and our support for researchers' career development. It is also an important mechanism to support the ongoing development of strong research outputs and grant proposals. UEB has therefore agreed that the one-year suspension of research leave for 2020/21 will not be extended.

We know that the impact of the pandemic on colleagues and their research has been highly uneven. National and international data has shown that the disruption has disproportionately affected female academics and colleagues with young children. Journal publishers and subject associations across disciplines have reported growing gender gaps, for example with regard to publications. Our own conversations with researchers, research leaders and Heads of Schools confirm that this also reflects the experience at Reading.

Research leave can help to mitigate some of the impacts, and in particular the unequal impacts, of COVID-19 on colleagues' research productivity. In line with our commitments to an inclusive and diverse research environment, Schools must prioritise the allocation of research leave for 2021/22 for colleagues most significantly affected, either through personal circumstances or the consequences of lockdown. Given the evidence from across the HE sector, we expect these to be in particular, but not exclusively, women and colleagues with young children.

Research leave has to support both our ambitions for an inclusive research environment, and our ambitions for research excellence. For 2021/22, Schools must also prioritise research leave for the completion of key projects that have been significantly affected, or for the development of grant applications for ambitious research projects.

As part of the strategic programme's work on "Expectations and Workload", we will look at the criteria for research leave in the future, and at the ways in which it most effectively supports both an inclusive research environment, and the strategic research priorities of Research Divisions and Schools.

When allocating research leave for 2021/22, Schools should therefore be guided by three criteria:

  1. The degree to which COVID-19 and associated personal circumstances have affected a researcher's ability to research, write and publish in 2019/20 and 2020/21. Schools should use the Personal Research Plan (PRP) process to evaluate the impact on individual colleagues, and to prioritise in consultation with Research Division Leaders. The University Committee for Research & Innovation (UCRI) will issue a revised PRP template to capture potential impacts. If PRP processes have already taken place or are scheduled to be too late to inform the allocation of research leave, Schools can collect the information in a separate process to inform decisions.
  2. The significance and ambition of the proposed project, and its contribution to the strategic objectives of the Research Division.
  3. Other internal support the applicant has received in the last three years (including periods of research leave, teaching buy-out, or RETF support), and the extent to which they have delivered the agreed outcomes associated with that support. Colleagues who have received internal support in recent years should be a lower priority. 

In light of these criteria, Schools should review decisions on research leave already taken, and if necessary, deprioritise them in favour of colleagues meeting the criteria outlined in this note.

We are keen to support colleagues whose research has been affected, and UCRI is allocating £150,000 for 2021/22 from RETF to that end. UCRI will agree on how this funding will be allocated to Schools in the coming weeks. 

Decisions on research leave are taken in Schools, and Schools should determine the most appropriate process, but to ensure a degree of consistency, these must comply with the University policy on academic leave. UEB has requested UCRI to survey Schools on their mechanisms and processes for awarding research leave and the extent to which the delivery against agreed objectives for the period of research leave is reviewed and recorded. We also recognise that the form that research leave will take will vary across schools and Research Divisions, reflecting different disciplinary demands.

We recognise that research leave can only support a limited number of colleagues next year, and that this will not fully address the impact of the pandemic. However, by supporting those most affected, we can reduce some of the inequalities which are at risk of becoming exacerbated and entrenched. This complements efforts to take circumstances relating to COVID-19 into account in probationary and Personal Titles processes.

With best wishes,

Parveen Yaqoob and Dominik Zaum, PVCs Research and Innovation

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