In 2020, the Biochemical Society conducted two surveys to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on researchers in the molecular biosciences. Totalling over 1000 responses across both surveys (a first-phase survey launched in April 2020 and a follow-up survey launched in October 2020) , the feedback reflected the impact of the various lockdowns and restrictions implemented within both the UK and globally.
One of the main identified causes of work disruption resulted from reduced access to laboratories. Initially anticipated as causing an inevitable decrease in research output, it had a disproportionate impact on early career researchers (ECRs) as ECRs are generally more reliant on new experimental data generation for career progression and often employed on fixed-term contracts. Researchers reported having been able to complete, on average, no more than 48% of their usual work between the start of the pandemic and October 2020, a value that went further down to 42% for ECRs. By October 2020, 60% of all respondents and as much as 75% for ECRs were reporting that they had not been able to collect enough new experimental data and were anticipating an impact on their career progression.1
Concerns over the future funding landscape and an expectation that social distancing measures would change both laboratory and teaching settings were widely expressed. A staggering 41% of respondents (46% of ECRs) reported that they were experiencing adverse impacts on their mental health. Importantly, 17% of all surveyed researchers and over a quarter of ECRs indicated that they were considering moving away from academic research, pointing to roles in industry and teaching, or even outside the biosciences, as possible career alternatives.
Similar evidence on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research communities is mirrored in other consultations and publications across science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The international and pan-scientific Frontiers survey on the impact of COVID-19 on over 25,000 members of the academic community further confirmed that close to half of surveyed researchers felt that the pandemic would have a long-lasting effect on funding (adding that 56% of UK respondents and 66% of US respondents considered that scientific advice was insufficiently taken into account by policy makers in mitigating the pandemic).2 Another survey of researchers in higher education and public research institutions in the UK reported a similarly overwhelming impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research activities that could not be carried out from home, with the obvious consequence of delaying publications and compromising future funding.3
In this age of COVID-19, it is perhaps ironic that scientific research is at risk, even as society looks to it for solutions to the pandemic. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that research outputs have been negatively impacted due to an inability to carry out research that could not be done from home with a decrease in the number of hours worked. This has had a negative impact on the mental health of many researchers with concerns over job security, career progression and the ability to retain and/or attract research funding. Decreases in future funding opportunities were anticipated, especially charity or industry funding, but is expected to be problematic for all funding sources. Strikingly, 19% of respondents to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy survey indicated that among academic researchers their own organization was the main source of funding.3 The risk of this revenue stream drying up is significant given the likely reduction in income from student fees, especially international students, as a result of the pandemic. It has been estimated that UK Higher Education Institutions could lose £2.5bn in tuition fees and teaching grant income in the 2020–2021 academic year alone.4 In a significant number of cases, research activities have been changed to address the pandemic, with researchers seeing a change in their roles to working on treatments and vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 as well as those working in laboratories under restrictive conditions due to the demands of safe working and social distancing, e.g., shift work and unsociable/longer hours.3 These changes have had their own impacts on the mental health of these researchers and most felt that their research capacity would not return to pre-pandemic levels. Another adverse effect on mental health has been experienced due to social isolation which has also negatively impacted networking and collaboration opportunities.
Most researchers have experienced difficulties and delays in getting research published,1–3 especially medical researchers not working on COVID-19, who felt that their work was viewed as lower priority. This has immediate impacts on career prospects, especially for ECRs, but has a wider societal impact, as research findings and their publication have impacts on government policy (consider the recent Dasgupta Review on the economics of biodiversity5 and the global impact the O’Neill report ‘Review on Antimicrobial Resistance’6 had), healthcare, global economy, food and nutrition and many others. Many researchers have expressed concerns about caring responsibilities and their adverse impact on employment and career progression.3 Interestingly, the balance of concerns was shared equally by males and females, and gender, ethnicity and disability were not felt to have a large effect, perhaps indicating that, fortunately, equality, diversity and inclusion issues have not suffered adversely as a result of the pandemic. However, in a high proportion of cases, females expressed more concerns about future employment, especially those on part-time contracts.
It would be unfair to only consider the adverse impacts that the current pandemic has had on the molecular biosciences. Many researchers are experiencing more flexibility in working patterns, with benefits to mental health, work–life balance and drastic reductions in time spent travelling and attending conferences and meetings, with obvious benefits to the environment.
One particularly obvious impact of the pandemic, and one the Biochemical Society surveys clearly indicate, is that researchers early in their career are the most adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the three key areas of concern being career progression, funding landscape and mental health. In July 2020, in response to the results of the first-phase survey, the Early Career Advisory Panel of the Biochemical Society formulated an action plan to support our student and ECR communities during these testing times. The Society and Portland Press have been working tirelessly to implement these activities, to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on members of the bioscience community who are earlier in their careers.
We have incorporated into the Society’s events portfolio a dedicated series of webinars, focused specifically on ECRs and aimed at tackling concerns around career progression. The widespread disruption to face-to-face scientific meetings and training events has dramatically restricted the opportunities for ECRs to develop their skills, network and gain feedback on their work. Through the research strand of the ECR webinar series, we provide our early career members with an opportunity to present their work to peers and colleagues. These webinars serve to raise the professional profile of ECRs across the full breadth of the bioscience community and help to build connections and generate collaborative opportunities. We have successfully hosted three such webinars to date: ‘Inflammasomes and plant resistosome’, ‘Novel advances in signalling: next generation approaches’ and ‘Developments in neuroscience’; the latter attracted 201 attendees and the 4 ECR speakers will publish accompanying articles in Neuronal Signaling, a Biochemical Society-owned journal published by Portland Press. To provide comprehensive career support and guidance for ECRs, which goes beyond the academic research ecosystem, we hosted webinars on ‘Industry careers’ and ‘Careers in science communication, medical writing and engagement’. These proved equally as popular as our research webinars, amassing 200 and 280 attendees, respectively. All ECR webinars (and Biochemistry Focus webinars) are available to view on our YouTube channel. We have an exciting line-up of ECR webinars over the course of 2021, both research- and career-focused, including computational biology and raising one’s professional profile.
We continue supporting ECRs through our Twitter chats and accompanying blog posts published on The Biochemist Blog. In 2020, we used these tools to stimulate interesting discussions on topics related to career progression and development, including ‘Working in industry’ and ‘Teaching in higher education’. In addition, Portland Press has launched a pilot ECR Editorial Board Mentorship Scheme, designed to guide ECRs through all aspects of the Associate Editor role, which was open for application to all ECR members of the Society. The newly established ECR Taskforce is a forum for ECRs to discuss key publishing-related activities with Portland Press, most recently meeting to discuss peer review and preprints. The taskforce discussions will feed into the wider overall discussions taking place within Portland Press and the Society to inform future considerations in the scholarly publishing landscape. Finally, to address some of the concerns around the changing funding landscape, we are developing an online ECR funding resource, accompanied by a blog post, which will provide information about the funding schemes open to students and postdocs. Stay tuned to our dedicated Early Career Members’ News monthly bulletin, which keeps Early Career members informed of all the latest developments, news, opportunities, and resources from across our organization and the biosciences at large.
The Biochemical Society invites all its members to stay in touch and keep us informed of their concerns. You can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org