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Last year, in the initial throes of the pandemic, I found myself trapped in Spain at the start of a lockdown, witnessing immense change in research culture. I was delighted by the many acts of kindness and altruism that those who work in science were capable of: from funders extending deadlines, no questions asked, to institutions streamlining bureaucracy and publishers making coronavirus research free to all. I wrote about the experience for Nature.

The original piece hit home for a number of academics globally. Fearful of the incoming unknowns and weary of a culture that places immense pressure on them personally and professionally, they were inspired by the sense that there is a better, kinder way to do science. In the months after the article was published, I received more than 100 e-mails from people around the world who shared an interest in recognizing and reducing disparities in research culture. They echoed the hope expressed in the article, and welcomed the opportunity to re-evaluate the values underpinning our culture.

I also received correspondence from some who did not think that a message of research kindness was sustainable. For them, the pandemic would only exacerbate moments of unkindness: the research enterprise was too inhospitable in its very nature to allow any change. I did not respond to these e-mails, choosing instead to focus on the positivity of this opportunity to recreate research culture.

There are many challenges to embracing the type of research culture we want. And that’s aside from everything else that we have had to balance this year — adjusting long-term to a new normal, recovering from periods of home-schooling and battling with almost impossible mid-pandemic workloads while taking care of our own and others’ health. But we can all take steps to make things better.

Costs and opportunities

If nothing else, the pandemic has shown that, given the right motivation and funding, science can achieve great things. Yet, for all that research has given the world in terms of understanding, advances and vaccines, it is clear that research culture itself has suffered immensely. The advances have come at a cost. Gender, racial and generational disparities have increased, exacerbating the pandemic’s emotional toll and further compounding inequalities. Problems associated with ideas of ‘excellence’ and ‘contribution’ have fuelled questionable behaviour in an already ultra-competitive research reward cycle.

Similarly, although the Zoom coffee sessions have stayed, we long for the real thing; online teaching and working seem normal but, again, we long for the physical classroom or office. And even though online conferences are one way for research culture to be more inclusive in the future, I know that as soon as the opportunity presents itself, I will be the first on that plane to see and interact with my peers, despite the financial and environmental cost.

But returning to normal should not cost the progress we’ve made in improving the research culture. This time apart might be the opportunity we need to grow wiser and kinder, with more empathy for others and more patience for ourselves. We should not allow our burning desire for life as normal to return us to business as usual.

Hold on to kindness

Lately, I’ve noticed a polite insistence on hard deadlines creeping into my inbox again, where previously there were gentle reminders. I’ve noticed that the robots are back: sending me e-mails asking after reviews that were expected 24 hours previously; asking me to respond to an invitation to review; congratulating me on a successful conference publication but at the same time enforcing impossible deadlines. It is becoming too easy to slip back into pre-pandemic ways of working.

Over the past three months, I have been working with colleagues, cataloguing their experiences of pandemic-related research interruptions and working towards ways to mitigate these losses. Everyone puts on a brave face, acknowledging their immense privilege. But everyone also shares stories of research lost and examples of a creeping unkindness in research culture that could have long-term implications for their research agenda and careers. These include: the inability to negotiate over strict deadlines imposed by institutions, journals, funding agencies and invitations to review or talk, leading to a decision to forgo the opportunity entirely; the increased emotional toll of pandemic teaching; relinquishing the opportunity to apply for promotion owing to a lack of time and energy; publications left unfinished because of a return to a culture of overwork.

What I have learnt during these conversations is that we should not be afraid of asking for kindness where we find it lacking. We all have very real and legitimate concerns about our own professional well-being, and are acutely aware of how any resistance to acting as normal might jeopardize our careers. How can I be treated fairly when it comes to my grant or promotion applications, considering the costs of the pandemic? How can I raise issues of well-being and performance or ask for a grant-deadline extension without jeopardizing my chance of success? To confront these concerns, we must acknowledge our difficulties honestly, so that small acts of kindness and understanding can be used to mitigate the lack of control that we all feel, and help us to recover the research that was lost.

Towards this end, I recommend these steps:

• Make an honest list of what has been lost, cancelled or delayed. Acknowledging loss is an important step in assessing what can be recreated through future research strategies.

• Avoid estimating counterfactuals such as what you might have achieved. Instead, be honest about interruptions that you have experienced so far. Kindness to yourself and to others involves focusing on what can be done to create new opportunities, rather than lamenting what could have been.

• Ask for help and, if necessary, ask for change. If it helps, share your list with your line managers, journals, funding agencies and colleagues so they can understand your request. Only then can meaningful change be offered. Putting on a brave face might lead to increased resilience, but it will not bring the help needed in the short to medium term. Likewise, others might be keen to offer help, but might not know what you need.

• Offer help and flexibility to individual researchers and non-academic members of research culture alike. Kindness works only if it is exercised by and to all members of our community, so practise empathy and flexibility as givens, not exceptions. Ask others how you can help and respect people’s need to step back or have more time.

• Point out incidences of unkindness. We are all navigating this new normal, so pre-pandemic policies, approaches and assumptions about what helps might not work as intended. Don’t be silent. Instead, lend your experiences to help make procedures work better for you and others.

Open discussion is one step in the direction of acknowledging the costs of research unkindness. But there is still much to do to transform the initial acts of kindness seen in early 2020 into long-term strategies and change.

For example, the initiative to publish all COVID-19 articles open access to aid decision-making and public trust should be extended to all research. Deadlines from funding bodies, publishers and universities should remain flexible and, when requested, extensions should be granted, without jeopardizing institutional schedules and wherever possible. More importantly, when we act as peer reviewers for promotions cases and grants, we can transform admiration of how others have weathered the past year’s storm into meaningful change in how we evaluate and reward performance. Perhaps, for instance, we should consider the wider contribution any scientist has made to their community, as well as their academic collegiality and their work to support others throughout the pandemic.

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel means that we can examine how we want to emerge from this pandemic. After all, research came together to make vaccines. We must harness that talent to create the world we want to work in — fairer, more empathetic, kinder.