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Councils tighten rules for GCRF grant winners

Research council grantees are being made responsible for ensuring that their international partners are complying with grant terms and conditions, under revised guidance issued by Research Councils UK.

Grantees will be responsible for carrying out due diligence of third-party organisations that receive funding for joint research projects, according to a guidance document issued by RCUK on 31 July.

The document said that research organisations are accountable for “the conduct of the research, the use of public funds and for ensuring the proper financial management of grants” by collaborating organisations or other third parties.

Research organisations “shall ensure in particular that activities carried out by such third parties comply with these terms and conditions”, it said.

RCUK’s previous terms and conditions made limited reference to partner organisations, and did so in the context of intellectual property rights and the need for collaboration agreements.

The changes are intended to increase transparency by providing “more clarity in terms of our assurances towards how we spend public funds,” said Maisie England, head of research funding at RCUK.

“It’s been quite obvious as time has gone on that we need to be transparent with the use of our funds and it is quite important to show the UK taxpayer that there is value for money in what we are doing and we have assurance mechanisms in place to make sure we are spending the money well and correctly,” she told Research Fortnight

The RCUK update follows an increase in council-funded projects between UK institutions and overseas partners through funds such as the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund.

Such partnerships, according to Ian Carter, director of research and enterprise at the University of Sussex, make the changes “not unexpected at all”.

“If a partner is claiming funds through an institution, you should expect to see a suitable audit trail for that purpose,” Carter said, referring to a clause in the updated guidance that institutions must be prepared to submit details of grant spending by third parties.

“How easy it is, is a different question,” he said. The changes may increase the burden of compliance for researchers who work with overseas partners.

“How does one establish if one is dealing with a sensible organisation or not? If an organisation is a university in the country of X, does that mean we automatically trust them because they’re a university, or do we automatically have to undertake a detailed assessment because they’re in country X?” said Carter.

The increased emphasis on record-keeping by third parties is in line with other changes highlighting the importance of financial accountability. 

Documentation that institutions must be able to produce on request includes annual reports and accounts and internal audit reports. They must also declare any allegations of fraud against them—proven or otherwise.

The updated document also said: “The Research Councils require public funds to be deployed with due consideration to value for money across all activities.”

Travel is one area where costs must be controlled. For example, apart from “clearly justified” exceptions, travel must be by standard or economy class.

Research organisations that fail to comply with RCUK’s regulations can face financial penalties, and the most recent iteration of the terms and conditions adds that research councils may also impose “additional measures” for non-compliance, for example, requesting more details on Final Expenditure Statements submitted.

The document also laid out additional financial penalties including the repayment of funds for organisations that break European state aid rules.


UK > Innovation


EPSRC boosts quantum technologies call to £9m

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has added £3 million to an Innovate UK fund for collaborative research into the feasibility of quantum technologies, bringing total funding for the latest call to £9m.

That initiative aims to enable UK businesses to grow the quantum industry, which is already valued at £1 billion, according to an Innovate UK announcement on 28 July.

The call is seeking collaborative feasibility studies from researchers and businesses seeking to improve understanding of the technical capabilities of quantum technologies, and the market for these products or services. 

Studies can be either technical, looking at the feasibility of specific devices, or non-technical, analysing markets, applications or business models.

Projects must be collaborative, with either a UK business or research and technology organisation as the lead. They should last between three months and one year and cost between 40,000 and £500,000.

Innovate UK's £6m in funding comes from the government’s £270m commitment to the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme.

The deadline for applications is 20 September.


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GENE wants to carry on 100,000 Genomes work

Participants in the Genetics Expert Network for Enterprises consortium, which is due to be wound up, want a successor body to continue its contribution to the 100,000 Genomes Project.

In a blog post on 28 July, Genomics England’s commercial director Joanne Hackett said that removing barriers between academia, industry, government and the NHS had been “one of the most innovative aspects of GENE”, and she called for a new body to be established to continue this work.

“Breaking these silos helps us to better understand the processes needed to turn pioneering discoveries into practical treatments that can be rapidly adopted in routine care,” Hackett wrote.

The GENE consortium was launched in March 2015 by Genomics England as part of the 100,000 Genomes Project, which aims to improve research and diagnosis of rare diseases by sequencing 100,000 genomes.

A collaboration between academia, NHS Genomics Medicine Centres and the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, the consortium's goal has been to ensure that genomics discoveries are translated into medical treatments and embedded into NHS care as quickly as possible.

It has worked with 13 private companies to ensure opportunities to further research efforts aren’t missed through a lack of early engagement with industry, and to identify where improvements to the 100,000 Genomes Project are needed.

GENE was originally set up as a year-long programme, but has expanded alongside the 100,000 Genomes Project. On 27 July the project's organisers announced the creation of a virtual research environment, which is now sharing its first datasets.

A group of 34 researchers have accessed the first data subset from the project’s cancer and rare disease arms, comprising 1,207 individuals.

Making the initial dataset available through the Genomics England Clinical Interpretation Partnership is a ““a big step towards achieving [the project’s] research goals”, said Mark Caulfield, chief scientist at Genomics England.


UK > Politics


Pro-remain cities 'will be hardest hit by Brexit'

UK cities that voted to remain in the European Union are likely to bear the brunt of the economic impact from Brexit, with London and Aberdeen hardest hit, according to an analysis by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The study by LSE's Centre for Economic Performance found that richer cities that specialise in financial and business services would see most damage from increased tariff and non-tariff barriers. It also found that the negative impacts of Brexit tended to be amplified in areas with higher average wages. These cities are predominantly in the south of England and largely voted to stay in the EU.

However, the study forecasts that every local authority would see a fall in Gross Value Added (GVA) as a result of Brexit.

The loss would be greater in the event of a hard Brexit, it said, averaging 2.3 per cent in cities and 2 per cent in non-urban areas, compared with 1.2 per cent and 1.1 per cent drops respectively following a soft Brexit. 

The City of London would suffer most under a hard Brexit, with 4.3 per cent wiped off the local authority’s GVA, the report predicts, followed by Aberdeen City, which would lose 3.7 per cent and Tower Hamlets, losing 3.6 per cent. 

In a soft Brexit, Aberdeen would lose 2.1 per cent of its GVA, with the City of London and Tower Hamlets losing 1.9 per cent and 1.7 per cent respectively.

Watford, Mole Valley, East Hertfordshire and Reading are also among those forecast to feel the greatest effects of Brexit.

However, the study only models the initial impact of Brexit, said Henry Overman, one of its authors and director of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth.

”It’s quite possible that the places experiencing the biggest initial shock are not necessarily those that will experience the most negative effects once the economy has adjusted,” he wrote on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

The study defined a soft Brexit as a scenario in which the UK remains in the single market, while hard Brexit entails the UK and EU trading under World Trade Organization conditions.

A hard Brexit would result in a broader variation of shocks to local authorities because of local specialisations in industries that are predicted to be badly hit by hard Brexit, the study found.


UK > Research Councils


UK Biobank releases huge tranche of genetic data

The UK Biobank has released genetic information from half a million people, which researchers can use to carry out more sophisticated gene analyses into the causes of disease.

The biobank said the data would enable researchers to better understand factors that predispose people to disease and explore how genetics, lifestyle, diet and environment each affect people’s health, in a press release published on 28 July.

The data release adds to genotyping data for 150,000 participants that has already been made available through the Biobank, an initiative set up in 2013 and funded mainly by the Medical Research Council and Wellcome. 

“We believe that this is the single largest release of a genetic dataset in terms of number of individuals genotyped,” said Mark Effingham, UK Biobank's chief information officer.

Scientists will be able to use the data to investigate whether changes in DNA are associated with particular diseases and will facilitate studies on common conditions such as mental health problems, hypertension and the impact of smoking on lung function, the biobank said.


UK > Universities


N8 sets out plans for urban farming alliance

A team of academics from the North of England has been examining how a network of urban farms in the region can play a role in global efforts to boost food production.

A metropolitan farming network could help to alleviate the growing threats to food security resulting from global warming and population growth, researchers from the N8 group of northern universities agreed at a workshop in Newcastle. 

London is home to more city farms and community gardens than any other UK city but Leeds and Newcastle are both poised to become models of sustainable food systems and collaborative leaders for city development, academics said.

“As global food production is placed under continued pressure, strategic collaboration throughout the region is vital to ensure we deliver the best results from urban farming,” Lynn Frewer, professor of food and society at Newcastle University, said in a statement on 28 July.

With 80 per cent of the world’s population forecasted to live in metropolitan areas by 2015, researchers are turning to new approaches to alleviate urban ‘food deserts’.

Urban agriculture is one avenue to increasing local and sustainable food production, reducing the need for long-distance transport. As a result, the number of rooftop garden farms and crops grown on abandoned properties in cities is showing steady growth.

N8 AgriFood is an interdisciplinary research programme focused on crop and livestock research, backed by HEFCE and the N8 partnership of eight research-intensive universities.



Europe > Ireland


Government push to boost Ireland’s bioeconomy

The government is seeking views on a draft national policy to scale up Ireland’s developing bioeconomy.

The Department of the Taoiseach released the discussion document, a reflection of how seriously the government is treating the initiative, released on 28 July. It says it wants views on how to grow Ireland’s existing bioeconomy and exploit emerging areas that have the potential for future growth.

The discussion is about the bioeconomy in its widest sense, relating to inputs to food, feed, chemicals, pulp, energy and fuel sources. It includes the exploitation of renewable resources on land and sea and the government is seeking views on what to develop and how to finance it.

As the economy develops the emerging companies will support economic development—including in the regions—and job creation, according to the government. The document also argues that research associated with the development of the bioeconomy will open the way towards fresh funding opportunities from EU budgets including the research budget Horizon 2020.

Opening a discussion on the topic follows the establishment of an interdepartmental group set up in late 2016. Its goal was to study current activity and to look for untapped opportunities.

The group organised an initial scoping exercise to pursue these and this identified 83 existing or potential measures in areas including research, applied science, engineering, policy initiatives and infrastructure, the government says.

It also held a workshop on future opportunities involving departmental and state agency staff, industry, academia and representative bodies. This showed the need for an overall policy and governance structure to set up and run a programme of development, the government said.

All this fed into the discussion document released this week and the government is asking anyone with views on the issue to make submissions. These must reach the Department of the Taoiseach by 15 September.

Submissions can be emailed to bioeconomy@taoiseach.gov.ie and written submissions can be posted into the department at Bioeconomy Consultation, Department of the Taoiseach, Government Buildings, Merrion Street, Dublin 2.

Relevant submissions will be placed on the department’s website.


Ireland's radio telescope goes live

Ireland’s radio telescope station for the pan-European Low Frequency Array has officially gone live.

The node, which went on stream on 27 July, links Ireland into a network of stations 2,000 kilometres across, with the far westerly location at Birr Castle Demesne, County Offaly, adding significantly to the telescope’s view.

The government provided €1.4 million to build and commission the station and it will cover the Irish station’s costs.

Junior minister for skills John Halligan was on hand to witness the commissioning.

Ireland’s involvement will open up opportunities for students here who want to become involved in world-class radio astronomy, the organisers said.


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