Doctoral researchers working in a lab

The pandemic has hit researchers in Brazil particularly hard.Credit: Maria Magdalena Arrellaga/Bloomberg/Getty

“Pay them and they will stay. Keep them and it will pay.” Sudanese mathematician Mohamed Hassan’s summary of Nature’s first international survey tracking scientists’ salaries and how they feel about their jobs in 2010 was both pithy and prescient (M. H. A. Hassan Nature 465, 1006–1007; 2010).

Hassan, who was then the president of the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi, was cheering the leaders of the then-emerging science countries, such as Brazil, India and China, that were properly paying their researchers despite the ongoing economic fallout from the global financial crisis. He urged others to do the same to avoid a brain drain.

Nature has since conducted a salary survey every two to three years. The results of our sixth one, Nature’s 2021 Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey, are published this week. The impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on careers looms large, alongside salaries, job satisfaction and issues of workforce diversity and inclusion, which we’ll be reporting on over the next four weeks.

The respondents are self-selecting, but the surveys provide a regular snapshot of scientific careers worldwide and enable comparisons to be made across regions, genders, career stages and disciplines. As well as highlighting the highs and lows of researchers’ professional lives, the findings can reveal how career trajectories are shaped by both world events and those closer to home. In the 2014 survey, for example, the global financial crisis was still casting a shadow, with 44% of respondents saying the resulting recession had negatively affected their job satisfaction.

This year, 12% of the survey’s respondents said they have lost a job offer because of COVID-19. Among early-career researchers, 53% of respondents said that the pandemic has negatively impacted their career prospects.

The total number of respondents this year (3,209) was lower than in previous years and was less than half of the 7,670 who responded to our survey of postdoctoral researchers last year. This perhaps reflects a jaded workforce as pandemic-related disruptions to daily life continue.

When, in 2010, Hassan singled out Brazil, India and China, they were among a handful of nations predicted to dominate the global economy by 2050. This optimism was reflected in that year’s Nature’s survey: job satisfaction in those nations, particularly in India and China, had increased that year, compared with that in other countries.

But this year, the mood seems to be especially bleak in Brazil and India, which the pandemic has hit particularly hard. Some 72% of respondents in Brazil and 61% in India, which received 107 and 89 responses, respectively, said the pandemic has slowed their careers. “We don’t have the technology to do anything other than basic research. Brazil is just chaos,” says Jucelaine Haas, a plant-science researcher at the Federal University of Technology in Paraná, Brazil.

Regardless of where they work, researchers point to lost productivity caused by data-collection challenges (57% of respondents) and an inability to conduct lab-based experiments (55%). One clear message from Nature’s survey and other recent studies is that it is still too early to say how lost productivity during the pandemic will affect future careers. But the early signs are not good.

A study of two surveys — with a combined total of almost 7,000 responses from principal investigators in Europe and the United States — found that around 27% of respondents did not initiate any new research projects in 2020, a dramatic rise from 9% in the previous year (J. Gao et al. Nature Commun. 12, 6188; 2021). The authors also report an analysis of some 9.5 million articles and preprints published in 2019 and 2020; they found that when research on COVID-19 is taken out of the equation, the number of published co-authored papers dropped by 5% in 2020.

But Nature’s latest survey also speaks to other global concerns. Since 2018, the surveys have proactively sought researchers’ experiences of discrimination in science, and of attempts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in response to movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. This year, 34% of women who responded said they have experienced discrimination, in contrast to 21% of men. Among women reporting discrimination, 50% said they have experienced gender-based discrimination.

Like previous surveys, this year’s suggests that the gender pay gap is most stark in later career stages, with 40% of men but just 36% of women reporting annual salaries of more than US$110,000. The gap is especially apparent in the United States, where 68% of senior men have crossed the $110,000 mark, compared with 55% of senior women.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, respondents who are non-white were more likely than their white colleagues to report experiencing harassment or discrimination.

One happier and recurrent theme of all six surveys is that, despite the challenges of financial crises and a pandemic, scientists broadly love what they do, although satisfaction rates have fallen from 68% to 58% since 2018.

As pandemic-related disruptions abate in many parts of the world, it is important that funders and employers remember the power of world events to shape scientists’ careers and fortunes. Now is the time to consider how to rekindle the desire to embark on new projects and to encourage a positive research culture that fosters inclusive collaboration and acknowledges that everyone in the research ecosystem has a part to play.