Head of Research Operations
University of Glasgow
TL;DR: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges to the research community. Can COVID herald positive changes in the sector? Universities, funders, and researchers can take advantage of the huge disruption in 2020 to improve the career prospects, work-life balance, and work satisfaction of researchers.
The evolution of practice in universities is traditionally incremental. Funding models, disciplinary silos, academic hierarchy, and long-standing equality, diversity and inclusion issues are all barriers to the higher education (HE) sector’s agility. Enter SARS-Cov2. The COVID pandemic has given the global HE sector a huge shock not seen in our generation.
A lot of attention is currently being paid to the ‘research culture’ of an institution – a complex interplay of factors that influence the life of a university researcher – including work-life balance, diversity and inclusion, career support, collaboration, and recognition for a job well done. Poor research culture not only affects an individual’s lived experience but will also result in less successful research. Perversely the pandemic has catalysed the drive for action fostering genuine meaningful change to the research culture agenda. As we slowly begin to emerge from our isolated environments, we have the prospect of fundamentally changing the concept of a research career so that our early career researchers, and the researchers of coming generations, can prosper and flourish in a fairer system that serves society better.
With working from home normalised during lockdown, universities should embrace the ability for staff to successfully work more flexible hours and in different locations, allowing for a better work-life balance to be maintained. Conference organisers should rethink the purpose of getting together before rushing back to face-face meetings at the expense of the environmental impact of travel, while also making it more difficult for those with caring responsibilities or mobility limitations to attend. With costs generally lower (or free) for virtual attendees, remote conferencing opens participation to those without the financial resources or visas to attend in person, as well as provide opportunities to researchers at all levels.
Many early career researchers are employed on short-term contracts – the shutdown of laboratories and being furloughed means their limited research time is being eroded. Opportunities for new contracts are reduced as there are hiring freezes at many Universities. Is there a way for universities to make early career researchers’ permanent staff members– perhaps by taking advantage of their specialist (often technical) skills and coordinate their working across different research groups – which online working could facilitate? Alternatively, researchers could compete for national permanent positions akin to the French system.
There has been much debate in the media regarding how women have taken most of the burden of caring responsibilities and home-schooling during lockdown, and there has been a notable imbalance between the publication rate of female to male academics since March. Funders and universities must take these situations into account when assessing promotion and job applications. The funder Wellcome has already announced they will be giving researchers the opportunity to detail how the pandemic has affected their work. The competition for funding is so fierce, that it often becomes impossible to distinguish who should be funded and who not. A lottery, already used by the Health Research Council of New Zealand and the Swiss National Science Foundation would be an alternative or additional solution, less time-consuming for reviewers, and would spread the funding across a wider range of researchers, thereby fostering innovation (the Matthew Effect describes how famous or well-funded researchers will get more recognition and funding – a positive feedback loop).
Whilst many universities, including The University of Glasgow, are actively trying to improve their research culture, there is a high level of dissatisfaction in the research community about the hours and workload, the culture of competition, and the difficulty in progressing up the career ladder. The University of Strathclyde has been open about supporting flexible working for staff who have reconsidered their work-life balance and priorities during lockdown. Some of these initiatives have been met with scepticism by researchers. We must all recognise that it is not enough for funders or centrally-positioned university teams and senior managers to deliver a policy that dictates what a researcher’s working environment should look like – every person in the institution needs to live those values for progress to be made. Those successful in the current regime will have to support new initiatives and ways of working that may be expensive or difficult to implement, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the sector and their trainees. Now is the time for funders, policymakers, university leaders, unions, and researchers themselves to take advantage of this opportunity to make the sector more adaptable and more supportive of those with diverse backgrounds, career stages and additional responsibilities. If we all work together to re-image the HE sector, more exciting, impactful research performed by productive and engaged researchers will follow.