Funding a concern amid Covid but academics push on with research

Huge survey finds majority of academics have adapted to shutdowns, but many fear ‘Covid-isation’ of grants

November 6, 2020
Source: iStock

Just one-fifth of the world’s researchers say their work has been upended by Covid-19, and almost three-quarters expect a return to business as usual within a year of the pandemic’s suppression, a major survey has found.

study by Swiss-based publisher Frontiers suggests that most academics have adapted to pandemic working conditions and enjoy solid support from their institutions. Three-quarters have made the most of campus closures by focusing on journal publications.

But funding is a major concern, with many respondents saying it has declined – often redirected to “hot topics”. Frontiers chief executive Kamila Markram warned against cutting funds in areas not directly related to virus control.

“The environment, for example, is an area we simply cannot afford to neglect,” Dr Markram said. “Doing so will have potentially irreversible consequences.”

The online study – one of the largest academic surveys ever, Frontiers says – was conducted in May and June and involved more than 25,000 respondents from 152 countries.

Seventy per cent said that while the pandemic had inconvenienced them, they were still able to perform most of their work, while another 10 per cent said their working processes had been unaffected. Just 20 per cent said their roles had disappeared or changed completely.

Seventy-five per cent said their organisations were keeping them abreast of developments and 72 per cent felt well supported. But only 60 per cent said their institutions were adequately prepared for remote work, with internet access a particular worry.

Dr Markram said scientists faced the same disruption, isolation and anxiety as people in other walks of life, coupled with “extraordinary” demands to “understand, cure and mitigate” the virus. “A lack of precedent and preparation, combined with severe political and social pressures, has made this an incredibly challenging time,” she said.

Thirty-three per cent of respondents said their funding had been unchanged by the virus while 6 per cent said it had increased and 35 per cent were unsure. But 25 per cent said money had already been redirected away from their areas, with almost half fearing that would happen in the future.

While Japan, Norway, Sweden and Germany appeared relatively untouched by such concerns, between 25 and 30 per cent of researchers in China, the US and the UK said funding had already declined. Many expected the problem to escalate, with future cuts predicted by 50 per cent of scientists in the US, 58 per cent in the UK and 64 per cent in Australia. Researchers in geology, biology and environmental science were particularly concerned.

University of Sheffield research policy expert James Wilsdon said virology, epidemiology, vaccines and therapeutics had benefited from “a vital injection of investment”. But he stressed the risks from shifting funding priorities.

“If this crisis teaches us anything, it should be the importance of investing in wider preparedness and resilience,” he said. “We need to avoid a lurch into the ‘Covid-isation’ of research systems if it comes at the expense of other areas which may be the source of the next crisis or the one after that.”

Researchers in South America have fared worst during the crisis, with more than half of respondents in Brazil, Chile and Colombia already reporting funding declines and around 70 per cent of Mexicans and Chileans expecting future cuts. Latin American respondents were also most likely to report disruption to their work.

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