Why I haven’t joined the UK’s coronavirus ‘scientific reserve’

Expecting early career researchers to help with coronavirus testing is unfair if they will suffer financial hardship, says PhD candidate Katherine MacInnes

April 21, 2020
Source: iStock

Around one week before lockdown, Public Health England sent a message to UK universities; it needed their help to find PhD students, postdocs and other researchers to carry out diagnostic testing in London.

Despite the urgency of the call, the email didn’t mention pay or whether researchers should have permission from their grant funders to up and leave lab projects. It also omitted any details on accommodation or travel support for those of us living outside the capital.

Then, on 2 April, we received another email, apparently from Public Health England (PHE), which was circulated to everyone in our faculty calling on us to join a “scientific reserve to support regional Covid-19 testing operations”.

This time it wanted volunteers to provide backup to support testing in regional hospitals if the normal lab staff got ill. This initiative appears to be part of “pillar two” of health secretary Matt Hancock’s recently announced five-pillar strategy for diagnostic testing.

The work would be hard, the email cautioned. It would require “five or seven day on/off shift patterns with long shifts” and we should think carefully before signing up.

Again, there was no mention of whether grant funders were permitting researchers to stop work to support Covid-19 diagnostics. Given my skillset, my initial feeling was some sort of deeply ingrained moral imperative to say yes.

But then I thought more about it. Since the lockdown I have been working towards my PhD by writing my thesis. I continue to receive my stipend through quarantine. Is it right to continue to take this money, intended to support me during my research, while working long hours on something that is not my project?

Others are in a similar position, whether PhD students or postdoctoral researchers. Is it right to ask them to work unpaid for Covid-19 diagnostics while they continue to get paid (perhaps even funded by charities such as Cancer Research UK and British Heart Foundation) for work that they now have no time to do?

If I put my research on hold to volunteer, I would ultimately have less time to complete the work I am funded to do, which could form a basis for future health advances. If researchers received a clear message from funders on whether to accept the secondment, it would make the decision much easier.

I have no doubt that Public Health England has had a wealth of sign-ups to its scientific reserve because scientists really are good, selfless people. Many of us do what we do because of the people we hope to help one day. Anecdotally, from other PhD students I know who have signed up, PHE has indeed been inundated with applications.

However, while I have the skills it is asking for, I will not sign up while I still have productive PhD work to do at home. Although I expect to get an extension of time because of coronavirus, I can’t see it being economically feasible for us all to have an extension of funding. I have even heard of PhD students being told they would have to suspend studies (forgoing their stipends) in order to help.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in volunteering – I run my own volunteer project in my city on evenings and weekends and have shopped for self-isolating neighbours. But the “scientific reserve” sounds like a full-time job, not a volunteer role that could fit around a normal work day.

To me, this follows the tradition of our government – a tradition shared by recent Conservative, coalition and Labour administrations – of chronically underfunding science and the NHS.

Why, when the government can fund furloughs (a policy I support and only wish was extended to all self-employed workers and those in the gig economy), can it not offer to pay us to do work that is so crucial? Why, at the very least, can it not ask our funders to assure us we will get funding extensions if we decide to help?

In better news, it seems that some Wellcome Trust-funded PhD students will indeed get funding extensions, as well as UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)-funded final-year PhD students. My wonderful supervisors are asking my funders about this possibility too.

I understand that the decision to ask us to volunteer for the scientific reserve is being made during a stressful and high-pressured situation. I know that whoever made that call did not think about the consequences for researchers and the difficult positions it can put us in.

That’s more reason to shine a light on what we are being asked to do during this period. Do we accept money given to us by charities while working on something that is not in that charity’s mandate? Do we put ourselves in precarious financial positions by finishing our PhDs with an extension of time but not money? In the economic crisis we can expect to follow this pandemic, will the government help to keep us financially afloat then?

My assumption is probably not: it will ask us to get ourselves in debt to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds to get the skills the country needs, but not pay us to work once we have them.

Katherine MacInnes is a final-year biochemistry PhD student at the University of Bristol.

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