The chance of ’success’ in an academic science career, which has historically been defined as obtaining a permanent position, is low1,2. Because of this, early-career researchers, including PhD students, postdocs and junior faculty members, are vulnerable to extra stresses3–5.
From June to October 2020, we surveyed 151 such researchers in different fields and from multiple countries in Europe to better understand how they were affected by pandemic-related lockdowns and associated relief efforts — such as extensions on grant or scholarship reporting and eligibility, and budget-neutral project extensions.
Not surprisingly, we found that the pandemic has amplified existing discrepancies among these researchers, especially between those with and without carer responsibilities. Some funders and academic institutions have provided deadline extensions or extended contracts. But these efforts might offer advantages only to certain groups, owing to their eligibility conditions and how well publicized they are. It is alarming that these measures might increase existing inequalities in academia as the pandemic continues into a second year and a return to normality remains unpredictable.
Of our survey respondents, 68% were women and 31% were men (1% had a different gender identity or did not disclose). Roughly half the respondents are members of a Young Academy, such as a National Young Academy or the Young Academy of Europe, which suggests that they are successful in their field and have a leadership role. Given the relatively small number of participants and the complexity of this survey, we can draw only qualitative conclusions. Respondents who have been negatively affected were more likely to respond than were others, and one-third of our respondents are from Hungary, which could bias our results.
Our survey, which was financially supported by the CALIPER project, produced three key findings (the full survey data are available here). Free-text responses further illustrated the conclusions we’ve drawn (see ‘Free-text responses’).
1. Reconciling work obligations with childcare responsibilities has been particularly challenging
We found that researchers with children under the age of 10 struggled the most to balance home-schooling and professional work. Our participants did not have other significant carer responsibilities beyond those for their own children, although we presume that those who provide care for an older person or dependent family member would experience similar difficulties. The absence of in-person school or day care (see ‘Lost safety net’) resulted in these respondents spending up to 8 extra hours daily on childcare and household activities (see ‘Growing responsibilities’).
2. Gender bias persists
Even before the pandemic, the average time spent on household activities differed between researchers with and without kids (see ‘Growing responsibilities’). Most scientist–parents spent 5–6 hours per day on household activities, whereas researchers without kids spent less than 3–4 hours. The pandemic further exacerbated these differences, especially for women with children. Our results indicate that women experienced more stress than men did during the lockdown (see ‘Stress factor’). There were even differences between genders in the amount of hours spent asleep (see ‘Work–life imbalance’). Other articles have also outlined how the pandemic has hit academic scientist–mums harder than their male or non-parent counterparts6,7.
3. Some people benefited
Those who did not suffer from restricted laboratory access or non-ideal working conditions at home might have experienced an advantage from working remotely. Many reported having fewer meetings, administrative tasks or disturbances, and noted that they were able to quietly focus on their work — an accomplishment that is almost impossible for scientist–parents with young children at home, especially before the kids’ bedtime.
However, those with no carer obligations often had to take on work responsibilities — particularly teaching and administrative work, but also experimental work, instrument maintenance and activities that required an in-person presence at the workplace, such as looking after cell, bacterial or fungal cultures, experimental animals or plants — from others who did have such obligations. These scientists might also have experienced a decrease in actual research time, as well as increased stress levels because of their higher workloads and feelings of isolation (and possibly increased exposure risk to SARS-CoV-2 when they had to go into their workplace).
Funding agencies’ mitigation measures have varied. Some have given blanket extensions to everyone by, for example, extending eligibility windows for a year (for example, a grant that allowed researchers to apply within three years of receiving their doctoral degree would be extended to four years), or extending existing projects, often at no extra cost. This is a strong start to helping researchers. Yet simple extensions for all are not ideal, because they could penalize those who cannot work from home effectively, and could give a boost to those who can do so. This disparity could worsen existing inequalities in the research enterprise and could prompt scientists from disadvantaged groups to reconsider their career options and think about leaving academia.
On the bright side, most academic institutions have normalized working from home. This allows for far greater flexibility, which in the long run is an advantage for scientists with carer responsibilities, and in general can improve work–life balance for everyone. Similarly, although online webinars and conferences have their own limitations, especially in terms of informal in-person networking, they are more accessible than are their on-site counterparts to scientists who have fewer financial resources or less mobility and, as such, can significantly increase the diversity of attendees. We hope that issues such as the unequal carer responsibilities, evaluation criteria that make it more difficult for women and minority groups to advance, and a lack of diversity and gender balance in scientific panels and among invited speakers and those in senior roles in academia will continue to receive attention8 after the pandemic ends.
The consequences of the pandemic, and the difficulties that it has caused for many scientists, call for accelerating the development of new ways to recognize and reward academic researchers. To mitigate the problems we identify here, which have also been brought up by others, we suggest that scientists should be appraised on their efforts and progress in light of their personal circumstances, and funders should move towards evaluating narrative CVs, instead of using assessments focused only on impact factors and other quantitative performance indicators.
We already know that academia treats those in the sector unequally, penalizing carers, women and those from minority ethnic groups9–12. In our view, intervention is necessary, and existing solutions are welcome, but are insufficient on their own. The degree of support that a researcher receives — when they receive it at all — needs to be more nuanced than simple blanket extensions to everyone. It is necessary to gauge the impact that the lockdown has had on an individual and their work before awarding an extension. This would require a careful and personalized career-evaluation procedure.
We recognize that this creates more work for reviewers, evaluation committees and others, but we do not want the pandemic’s effects to fortify the proverbial glass ceiling.