Covid-19 is exacerbating early-career researchers’ greatest concerns

Job security, research funding and work-life balance for young academics have all been worsened by the pandemic, say four academics  

September 12, 2020
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The Covid-19 pandemic continues to shed light on pressing issues affecting early-career researchers (ECRs).

Lockdown measures have caused interruptions to most of the regular research activity, and while employers and funding agencies are trying to provide flexible solutions, their inability to complete research projects and secure further funding will affect ECRs’ employability – especially given that a recession will inevitably reduce already scant vacancies.

Our survey, conducted in October 2019, gives a snapshot of the challenges that ECRs were encountering even before the pandemic began. In the survey, 510 UK ECRs, representing all genders and disciplines, were asked to select the top challenges they were facing from a list. The goal was to assess the need for a UK-wide Young Academy as part of the expanding worldwide movement.

Job security, securing research funding, and workload and time management were highlighted as their greatest concerns. These challenges will be further exacerbated in the current climate unless action is taken. Universities are taking drastic measures to reduce the workforce, implementing hiring and promotion freezes, declining to renew temporary contracts and, in some cases, even proposing to close entire departments.

Research budgets in many countries are also being tightened. The particular disadvantage of ECRs is clearly seen at the European level. With the majority of its resources allocated to researchers under 40 years of age, the European Research Council (ERC) plays a key role in supporting the next generation of researchers. ECRs have therefore expressed serious concerns over the cut to the EU research and innovation budget – from the proposed €94.4 billion (£87.4 billion) to €80.9 billion – agreed at the European Council meeting in July. Numerous ECR organisations, including young academies and the Marie Curie Alumni Association, have issued statements and pleas to national governments to think again.

Balancing work and family commitments in lockdown posed further challenges to efficient time management. Since ECRs are more likely to have young children, the demands of childcare and home schooling especially affect them – especially women. The approaching second wave of the pandemic will likely reimpose these pressures, adding to the workload of ERCs working from home.

Innovation in the way higher education is delivered will also be inescapable. For those with teaching obligations, the creation of new online educational resources will require a significant time commitment. Additionally, individual workloads will only increase if the existing workforce is reduced.

We also asked ECRs to highlight where improvement was most needed. The top three areas they identified were building international collaborations, improving research culture and collaboration between disciplines. None of this is likely to be possible when everyone is isolated at home.

Similarly, the switch to the somewhat impersonal Zoom environment is unlikely to facilitate mentorship – another priority for our respondents. Yet mentoring is of particular importance in these challenging times, when we all need to adapt to different working conditions.

Universities can’t do everything by themselves. They will need financial support from the government to address ECRs’ concerns regarding job security and research funding. But universities do have a central role in reinforcing positive change in research culture. ECRs need advice on time management to ensure physical and mental well-being, and universities should offer better and more accessible career support and mentoring, with realistic expectations and goals.

Equality, diversity and inclusion need to be taken to the next level if those at the lower end of the profession are to progress; in their free-text responses, respondents to our survey repeatedly expressed a frustration with the lack of progress to date.

In January, the Wellcome Trust published a major report on UK research culture that highlighted the urgent improvement needed if we are to achieve a “kinder”, more sustainable culture in academia. Perhaps kindness is too much to ask for. But the responses to our survey suggest we must aspire to a fairer culture that rewards all academics equally for their talent and labour.

Gergely Toldi is a consultant neonatologist and an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham. Charlotta Salmi is lecturer in postcolonial and global literature at Queen Mary University of London. Anna-Maria Gramatté is a project officer at the Global Young Academy, and Moritz Riede is professor of soft functional nanomaterials at the University of Oxford. They would like to thank respondents for their time and members of the working group for their contribution to creating and evaluating the survey.

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