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Coronavirus shut-downs pose huge threat to Australian research jobs

A specialist otolaryngologist trying on a 3D printed face shield

Science organizations warn that thousands of researchers could lose their jobs in the wake of coronavirus shutdowns.Credit: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg/Getty

Research in Australia will face drastic cuts in funding and jobs as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic shut-downs, according to a report by organizations representing the country's researchers and academia.

Universities in Australia are heavily reliant on international students as a source of revenue and research staff. Income from fee-paying international students makes up around one-quarter of institutions’ operating revenue, and contributes to the cost of research, staff salaries and research facilities.

The report forecasts that this revenue will decline by at least Aus$3 billion (US$1.9 billion) this year as a result of the drop in international students because of travel bans and visa restrictions. As a result of this shortfall, an estimated 7,000 university researchers could lose their jobs over the next six months, the report warns. Universities employ almost half of Australia‘s 164,000 full-time researchers.

The report also estimates that more than 9,000 international research students will be forced to delay or abandon their research programmes this year because of travel bans. More than one-third of PhD students in Australia are international students — three-quarters of whom are doing science-related degrees — and many of them have returned to their country of origin because of the pandemic.

“We’re seeing a significant impact on our capacity to support high-quality research teams,” says Susan Dodds, the deputy vice-chancellor of research and industry engagement at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Other countries around the world are likely to face similar impacts to research as Australia, says Kylie Walker, the chief executive of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, which led the report’s production. One key difference is that Australia has a greater reliance on income from international students than many other nations similarly affected by the pandemic.

But the longer-term implications could be even more profound than the repercussions expected in the next six months, she says. “There are lots of implications for this that we won’t even know until years down the track,” Walker says. The impact will be substantial on the careers of junior scientists, the loss of potential spin-off companies and industry collaborations, and the suspension of clinical research in vital non-pandemic health areas.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-01407-4

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