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Potentially long-lasting effects of the pandemic on scientists

From Nature Careers

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Two surveys of principal investigators conducted between April 2020 and January 2021 reveal that while the COVID-19 pandemic’s initial impacts on scientists’ research time seem alleviated, there has been a decline in the rate of initiating new projects. This dimension of impact disproportionately affects female scientists and those with young children and appears to be homogeneous across fields. These findings may have implications for understanding the long-term effects of the pandemic on scientific research.

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Concluding remarks and discussion

Taken together, our surveys and analyses reveal two important patterns. The first suggests some optimism: the amount of time scientists are spending on their research has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, and most publication-based metrics show only minor declines. On the other hand, our analyses suggest that, even though scientists are returning to work, they have been substantially less likely to pursue new research projects. This suggests that the impacts of the pandemic on science may be longer-lasting than is commonly imagined.

These findings are important for several reasons. While many studies have focused on scientists who pivoted their research towards the pandemic, it is important to recognize that the majority of scientists did not carry out COVID-19-related research, and it is this majority who appear especially disrupted. Paper submissions and publications appear to be holding steady, if not on the rise. However, the finding that researchers pursued fewer new projects in 2020 suggests that these trends may reflect scientists working on established topics, writing up existing research, submitting drafts earlier than they would have otherwise, writing more grant proposals than typical, or revisiting old data and reviving legacy projects that they would not have pursued otherwise. While the impact of these changes remains unclear, they suggest that publication trends alone may paint an incomplete picture of the productivity of the research enterprise.

While the decline in new research projects coincides with the decrease in new co-authorships, many other factors may also play a role. Some of the potential mechanisms include decreased access to facilities and field sites, a decline in in-person training and mentorship, less funding or support for non-COVID-19-related research, increased teaching demands such as redesigning courses, the psychological toll caused by the pandemic, or uncertainty about how the pandemic will unfold in the coming months and years. The homogeneous nature of the decline in starting new projects across fields, however, suggests that the primary reasons for this decline may not be unique to the nature of work in any particular field but are instead more common to all scientists.

Overall, these findings have important implications for science policy. First, they are consistent with face-to-face interactions and collaborations being an important channel for new ideas, reinforcing the value of resuming in-person activities. While there could be substantial gains from certain aspects of science shifting online (e.g., virtual seminars reducing travel demands and bridging geographical gaps), it remains unclear how well virtual tools can facilitate important social functions related to the formation of new ideas. Second, these results may contribute to current policy discussions aimed at encouraging social interactions, facilitating new collaborations, or promoting new ideas (e.g., institutional bridge funds). Ultimately though, successful rebuilding of the global research enterprise would also depend on how well policy makers and institutional leaders address and manage the mental-health challenges facing scientists.

The decline in pursuing new projects is particularly pronounced for women or caregivers of young children, which is consistent with related work. Likely in response to these sorts of patterns, many institutional leaders implemented policies such as tenure clock extensions. As institutions begin their phased return, it may be tempting for decision makers to evaluate short-term metrics to gauge research outputs and inform their subsequent policies. Yet, our results suggest that these short-term metrics may mask long-lasting effects of the pandemic. It is also important to recognize that even as universities reopen, children under the age of twelve remain ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines at the time of this writing, which has further implications for scientists with young children. Ignoring these long-run consequences may have profound implications not just for the inequality of science but also its long-term vitality. At the same time, it also suggests that short-term investments, such as childcare support, may yield long-term benefits.

Our analyses have several limitations. (1) Our two surveys span only US- and Europe-based institutions, which limits the geographic coverage of our analysis. Yet, our preliminary analyses suggest that low-income or developing countries appear to experience substantially larger declines in new co-authorships on non-COVID-19-related research. Given the global disparity in the pandemic, expanding our analyses to other regions would be extremely valuable. (2) Our survey respondents are from self-selected samples and may not be representative of the full population of scientists. In particular, those who felt strongly about sharing their situation may be more likely to respond. (3) Although the survey results and actual research outputs show a high degree of consistency (Supplementary Fig. 5), as with any survey, there may be biases in the self-reported metrics. Similarly, measurements using publication records may be limited by the fact that new co-authorships, especially those on non-COVID-19 topics, may take longer to come to fruition. (4) The number of new projects is a relatively new measure, and may have been interpreted differently by scientists from different backgrounds. As such, continued work investigating the value and reliability of this metric is important and could further enrich our understanding of early-stage research. (5) Our surveys do not capture health information, preventing us from controlling for scientists’ direct or indirect exposure to the virus. (6) The effects discussed in this paper are based on correlations, leaving open questions about what exactly may be the key mechanisms causing the decline in new research projects.

Taken together, our findings suggest a potentially long-lasting effect of the pandemic on scientists that has thus far received little attention: a decrease in initiating new research projects. This dimension of impact appears to be rather homogeneous across fields and affects disproportionately female scientists and those with young children. Thus it is vital for science funders and institutional leaders to pay attention to the long-term effects of the pandemic on the scientific enterprise—even when science might appear to be recovering from its initial disruptions.

 

Gao, J., Yin, Y., Myers, K.R. et al. Potentially long-lasting effects of the pandemic on scientists. Nat Commun 12, 6188 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-26428-z

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