Coronavirus fallout puts next generation of scientists at risk

Pandemic-related measures to retain early career researchers could block the pipeline for future cohorts.

29 May 2020

Dyani Lewis

Sigrid Gombert/Getty Images

A young engineer at an industrial plant in Germany. Industry jobs are now even more competitive due to the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Fears are growing that the coronavirus pandemic will create a long-lasting career disadvantage for the next generation of scientists, as extensions to grants and scholarships block the pipeline that would otherwise be funnelling new graduates into the research workforce.

“That’s the kiss of death to science,” says Oren Scherman, director of the Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

“I think what would be absolutely detrimental is to say, ‘Oh, we're just going to limit our intake next year.’”

A generation lost

Major funding bodies, such as the US National Science Foundation, Europe’s Horizon 2020, and the Australian Research Council, are extending grant deadlines and allowing researchers whose work is disrupted greater flexibility in how funds are spent.

Many governments and universities are making extensions to scholarships and candidature available for post-graduate research students, although these don’t necessarily apply to all students and may not have funding attached.

Universities could face knock-on effects, with current students tying up government-funded scholarship allocations as well as lab and office space.

“We're creating a blockage in the pipeline as new people come through,” says Inger Mewburn, director of researcher development at the Australian National University in Canberra. “There'll be a squeeze on resources.”

Feeding the pipeline could also be a problem, according to aquatic ecologist Ross Thompson, director of the Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra in Australia, due to the widespread disruption to undergraduate study programs. Some undergraduates will be unable to fulfil the lab-work necessary to qualify for further study, he says.

“You sort of lose a generation, because they can't just hang around at home. Some of them will have gone out and gotten jobs, and some of them won't ever come back.”

Shutdown shock

According to Kate Adamala, a synthetic biologist from the University of Minnesota, the COVID-19 shutdown has been a “bump in the road” for some researchers, but for others nearing completion of their PhDs or work contracts, the stress has been significant.

 Kate Adamala

Kate Adamala

Some researchers have lost an entire year of field data, or have discarded cell culture lines that could take months to replace, says Thompson.

Researchers who have had to euthanize mice and other research animals – potentially delaying research by months – are also hard hit by the shutdown.

In March, Melanie Ford had to abandon her research into the substances plant roots exude into their environment.

An international PhD student at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, Ford obtained special access to the campus to water her plants and conduct limited experimental work, but the closure of specialist facilities for microscopy and protein analysis put most of her data collection on hold.

“It’s like all the gears grinding to a halt,” says Ford.

Time versus expectations

Conor King, executive director of Innovative Research Universities, a group of seven Australian universities says that universities are keen to see students “keeping to the broad timeframes they were already working to” by adjusting their projects, rather than shifting their completion dates.

While some people might need extended deadlines, “there's also an expectation of lowered performance,” says Adamala. “Students and postdocs that are on fellowships know that this will be taken into account in their performance reviews, that they weren't able to do some work because it was physically impossible.”

 Oren Scherman

Oren Scherman. Credit: Gabriella Bocchetti/University of Cambridge

In the UK, there’s a similar push, but Scherman argues that adapting projects to reduce expectations is not a solution.

“That's maybe what the department or university wants us to do, but that's not my personal view,” says Scherman. “You don't finish your PhD like it's a football match and the clock runs out,” he says.

“I don't think we could have predicted the magnitude of it, nor the duration,” says June Gruber, a clinical psychologist and neuroscientist from the University of Colorado Boulder.

“And to imagine that the last two months may only be the beginning of a much longer-scale change ahead of us.”

The uncertainty is taking an emotional toll.

“The resentment and the anger… it's real and valid,” says Mewburn. “There are some people who [feel] paralyzed because they can't get into their labs and they can't finish their work. But I think the bigger problem is they're paralyzed about ‘what's the point’?”

“It's definitely something [that’s] weighing on my mind, knowing that, potentially, in a year and a half, I'll be finishing a PhD and maybe not be able to get a job,” says Ford.

A bleak outlook

It is feared that the pandemic-related cutbacks will exacerbate the problem of precarious work in the sector. The bleak financial outlook for many institutions has made an already hazardous career choice seem even more treacherous.

“People who already knew they had a competitive job market to go to now see it as an impossible job market,” says Mewburn.

Melanie Ford

Melanie Ford

In Australia, modelling by the higher education industry body Universities Australia estimates that the sector will lose between US$2 billion and $3 billion dollars in revenue in 2020, putting 21,000 full time jobs in jeopardy over the next six months.

The consultancy firm, London Economics has forecast funding shortfalls to UK universities of over US$2 billion, with 30,000 higher education jobs at risk in the 2020-21 academic year.

The usual alternatives to academic roles – jobs in industry – are also harder to get due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, adding to the sombre picture.

“Usually, the problem was that people who wanted to stay in academia weren't able to find jobs,” says Adamala. “But now the industry jobs are becoming incredibly competitive too, because many start-ups are not hiring, and many big pharma companies are not hiring either.”

A time to pivot

Amid the turmoil, some see an opportunity.

In Gruber’s lab, which studies positive emotions and how mental health problems arise, people have been able to “creatively pivot”, seizing the chance to study how people have responded to the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic.

“I think they've found this as a responsibility, and a calling for them to engage in finding creative ways to scientifically study the impact of what they're living as students, and what we're all living right now in this world,” she says.

With that opportunity comes a sense of meaning.

“I think there's a profound sense that, at least in my field of clinical psychologists and psychological scientists, we're needed more than ever,” says Gruber.

That sense of meaning needn’t be limited to the domain of mental health, she adds. “In times like these, I think we see the critical need for young, energetic, and really motivated and caring future scientists.”


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