HE financial crisis risks ‘lost generation of researchers’

Support for early career scholars must be explored to avoid research being damaged in the long term, experts warn

June 11, 2020
A picture shows the last artwork by Chinese artist Liu Bolin at the galerie Paris-Beijing on March 19, 2015 in Paris, France.
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Easy targets: precarity of job roles and lack of funding could see young researchers in the firing line in the Covid financial crisis

Universities around the world face a “lost generation of researchers” unless careful thought is given now to supporting early career academics through the funding storm created by the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been warned.

It comes amid growing concerns among PhD students and postdoctoral scholars, who are already struggling to finish current projects during lockdowns, that future posts will dry up as universities struggle to balance their books.

Indications that early career researchers could be at the sharp end of any financial squeeze have included findings last month from a UK survey, which discovered that just one in ten postdocs whose contract ends this year had received extra funding.

Meanwhile, a report from the Australian Academy of Science, also in May, warned that “the highly casualised and fixed-term nature” of the research workforce meant job cuts could be “disproportionately felt by junior researchers including recent graduates”, as well as “early career and mid-career researchers, and women”.

In the US, there is optimism that research will bounce back quickly if funders can extend support, but hundreds of universities have instigated hiring freezes amid warnings that junior researchers will be most heavily affected.  

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, told Times Higher Education that the worry was that “early career researchers are going to have very few opportunities, [while] PhDs will be graduating into a dead labour market”.

“There’s going to be a lost generation of researchers unless we’re very, very sensible and smart about how we handle this,” he added.

He warned that if the issue was not tackled, research quantity and quality could be affected in the long term given the huge proportion of project work that was done by early career researchers.

In Australia, for instance, the country’s statistics body has estimated that more than half of the time devoted to research in universities comes from postgraduate students, while a study of research-intensive systems in Europe has found that academics under 40 spend at least twice as much time on research as their oldest counterparts.

“When you talk about evacuating a whole generation or a big part of it”, said Professor Marginson, you are looking at “quite substantial downturn in output” and change in quality because of less competitive pressure.

Frank Larkins, former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne and lead author on the AAS report, told THE that the longer-term dangers of damage to early career research amounted to an “erosion of the skills base and loss of momentum for innovation, new discoveries and support for internationally competitive industries”.

Although the crisis could be most acute in countries with the highest reliance on international students, both in terms of fee income and the career pipeline, higher education systems elsewhere are also eyeing the impact on junior researchers with trepidation.

Alexander Hasgall, head of the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education, said some public funding in some nations on the continent had still not completely recovered from the 2008 financial crash.

“Nobody can see into the future, but without the proper basic funding for universities, we may risk a decrease of opportunities for early career researchers and an increase of precarious positions,” he said.  

He added that the current economic crisis could also hit organisations outside higher education such as businesses or charities, and if they are “struggling, co-funding a doctorate may not always be the first option”.

In the US, Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists and co-chair of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine’s New Voices project, said a “brain drain” from academia was a risk if support for early career researchers was not explored.

“Generally speaking, researchers need flexibility by funding agencies and by host institutions – especially those researchers whose projects have been halted. That requires extending grant deadlines so that research projects are not prematurely terminated,” he said.

But he added that it was “imperative” that project extensions were also supplemented by mechanisms “to continue salary, benefits, stipends and tuition support for all of those involved in the research enterprise”.

Simon Proud, a National Environment Research Council fellow in aviation meteorology at the University of Oxford, suggested it was financial support for individuals that was creating the most difficulty.

The UK’s furlough scheme − where the government is covering the pay of many employees unable to work during lockdown − has not been used for many postdoctoral academics on grant-funded contracts and fellowships.

“Those researchers are therefore expected to either take unpaid leave (which is challenging as many of us are already financially precarious) or we’re expected to work from home, which is problematic for those of us with caring responsibilities or those who require access to laboratories,” he said.

Bethan Cornell, a doctoral student who is also working on a report for the Higher Education Policy Institute on PhD students, said longer term she hoped that the plight faced by early career researchers would encourage structural change.

One “big potential”, she said, was for UK government plans to ramp up research spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP to be targeted in this area. “In my opinion we should be investing that 2.4 per cent in early careers and providing stability,” said Ms Cornell, who is studying for a PhD in physics at King’s College London.

However, the change would have to come from the “top down”, she added, as PhDs and postdocs are “really powerless…we rely on getting our papers published to get that permanent position; we don’t want to rock the boat”.

Thierry Courvoisier, a former president of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences who led a project on precarity in academia for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, said systemic changes should be the priority.

“The major problem of young researchers, but actually more broadly of the academic world, is structural rather than only monetary,” he said.

“The level of competition one now sees is far beyond what would be optimum” with a “perceived impression that funding projects is the best way to be efficient, forgetting that projects are conducted by people”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Is global HE facing a lost generation of young researchers?

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Reader's comments (1)

All these issues about funding for research, likely cuts in postfix research, the proportion of time early career researchers spend doing research compared with older researchers should not be separately addressed. It is necessary and critical that all universities streamline all research (Bachelor's, Masters, Ph. Ds, postdoc, professors) for problem -solving purposes. This means that all such research should be conducted on problems in the particular society: business, organizational behavior, engineering, science, social problems, psychological (emotions, mental health, moral behavior, cultural affairs, economic, religious, environmental. The area/topic under study should depend on the student's major or the professor's teaching area. This can be fleshed out as a proposal to government or any other organization for resolving the issue in a practical manner. A contract can be negotiated if the proposal is accepted and the university and professor of student can share the monies paid by the organization of government. This makes such universities more relevant, encourages collaborations with Stakeholders and other groups and government and the issue of ongoing individual level self-serving research will soon disappear.

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