Wednesday 15 April 2020

All staff email

York Research Responding to Covid-19 - 15 April 2020

Dear colleague

As you will know, many of my update messages on the Covid-19 situation up to now have focused on our immediate efforts to transition to online provision of teaching, organisation of remote working and other emergency responses.

But I wanted to take the opportunity to also share with all of you the creative ways in which our research community has been deploying its world-class expertise to support the response to the pandemic in and around York, nationally and beyond. This has included adopting new working practices for existing projects, but also adapting research capacity and skills to contribute to efforts to understand and reduce the impact of Covid-19.

Alongside all that, colleagues are also working hard to influence debates in the sector and with research funders to ensure that our voice is heard in relation to research issues affected by the Covid-19 crisis, including PhD funding, staff contracts funded by research grants, REF submission (now delayed until next academic year) and a range of other research policy issues. And we are still winning new grants from a range of funders (more than £4M since the introduction of remote working), opening up the research discoveries of the future.

How is York's research contributing towards combating Covid-19?

The York research community response can be categorised in three key themes:

1. Pledges of expertise, facilities and equipment

Some of our equipment is already in use at York Hospital, run by University research staff volunteers, dramatically increasing local NHS testing capability and we are responding to more specialist requests to supply materials in short supply including Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and reagents.

Staff have also committed their research expertise to the Covid-19 effort by registering with international consortia (such as CrowdFight Covid-19) and national requests (such as the Royal Society call for scientific modelling assistance). Our expertise in policy research is being called upon to inform Government decision-making, and many staff have also registered with the Parliamentary Expert Database. You can find links to these databases and our internal register of expertise on our webpages.

2. Combating Covid-19: Our research in action now

York’s world-class research is being used in many settings in the Covid-19 response. The following are just a few examples of our research in action:

Informing policy with rapid research

Researchers across the Centre for Health Economics, Health Sciences and the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination are liaising with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to inform developing policy with rapid response research to support the NHS and social care system as they respond to and recover from Covid-19. The Centre for Global Health Histories and its Director, Sanjoy Bhattacharya, are supporting the development of new WHO ethical guidelines for research on COVID-19 for its 194 member states.

Contributing to Bradford’s response and decision-making

University of York researchers (led by Kate Pickett, Trevor Sheldon and Laura Sheard, Department of Health Sciences) are working with the Bradford Institute of Health Research to support Local Authority and NHS partners to define and identify vulnerable groups through research insights, intelligence, connected data and public health theory.

Beyond health

The team in our Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratory are providing national leadership of scientific advice to the UK Government on a wide range of topics, including the interaction of air pollution and virus spread, long-range forecasting of air pollution risks and contributing to efforts on international monitoring of air pollution changes that are occurring as the lockdown causes alterations in everyday activities like car usage.

Researchers from the Global Food Security Programme-funded “IKnowFood” project have highlighted the challenges to the UK’s food system and potential for food insecurity, concluding that food banks and other food aid providers are already at capacity, and are calling for greater centralised intervention.

Researchers from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work have modelled the impact of changes to the benefit system and free school meal vouchers on child poverty, highlighting the urgent need to protect poor families with children in the Covid-19 pandemic.

3. Research projects to support medium term Covid-19 response

The York Structural Biology Laboratory (YSBL) is working on determining the structure of the Covid 19 nucleocapsid protein. This work has also been shared with laboratory teams in Oxford, Sheffield and the Crick Institute as there is significant potential for the protein to be used in developing antibody-based tests. Further information on this vital work will be published later this week

Work is also underway in a number of areas to investigate the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable in society. This includes research by Simon Gilbody’s team in Health Sciences, in partnership with the Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust, to develop a trial to investigate the prevention and mitigation of the onset of depression among socially isolated older people.

Ruth Patrick, from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation to develop understanding of how families in poverty navigate this crisis, while also tracking how the social security system responds. And Umar Toseeb, Lecturer in Education, is tracking the impact of the crisis on families with children who have special educational needs.

You will appreciate that this is only a small sample of the ways in which our research is being deployed to respond to the pandemic situation. I want to thank everyone for their commitment and creativity as we continue to understand the scale and impact of the Covid-19 crisis. Further examples of our research response to Covid-19 will be communicated on our website and on our social media channels and where appropriate will also be highlighted in our civic engagement work led by Professor Kiran Trehan.

What next for York’s research?

As well as contributing to the immediate response to the pandemic, York researchers are also considering how they can best address longer term issues. This includes considering how the NHS should prioritise postponed procedures, challenging how insurance companies consider risk, debating the future (and potentially changing) role of the state, and the impact of Covid-19 on our natural environment and cultural landscape.

Over the coming weeks, as we settle further into new patterns of working, a series of online interdisciplinary discussions to consider these topics and more will be led by our Research Theme Champions, with contributions from other senior leaders. If you have ideas about issues you’d like to share or discuss at one of these sessions, please contact one of the Champions directly or email

More information on external funding opportunities related to Covid-19 are included on the Staff Research pages, along with information on a new ‘light-touch’ additional oversight process to support colleagues making applications or re-purposing their current research.

The University’s research community has responded to Covid-19 with energy and commitment, and the examples listed here are only a small part of a much bigger picture. If you are applying your research to understanding the pandemic or addressing its many challenges, we want to hear about it. Please complete the short questionnaire here to keep us informed and so our Communications team can share the fantastic work that York staff are doing via our website and social media channels. Covid-19 specific research queries can be directed to

There are, however, also broader, and very complex issues in relation to our research capacity that are under active consideration. These include funded extensions to PhD students and funded research contract arrangements that have been impacted by the lockdown. I, together with Professor Deborah Smith, as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, and other members of UEB are working with sector colleagues, including UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Universities UK (UUK) and the Russell Group to try to resolve these issues.. I will send further updates as soon as we have more information.

We are a university established for public good. It is heartening how colleagues across the University have shown that commitment to public good anew over the past few weeks as they have played a vital role in the response to Covid-19.

Thanks again to everyone for their hard work.

Best wishes


Professor Charlie Jeffery