New reports shed light on challenges ahead
Scientific endeavor is at the forefront of the fight against COVID, playing an essential part in guiding the approach to managing both the human and medical impact of the virus. earlier this year Steven Inchcoombe explained how Springer Nature was commissioning research to raise awareness of the challenges that universities and researchers worldwide were facing because of the pandemic. We wanted to contribute to a better understanding of what is going on behind the well-reported financial implications and provide insight and critical thinking into the possible long-term impacts, and importantly the less-well reported human, personal, impact.
The independent studies, focusing on the US, the UK and Australia as three countries most dependent on domestic and international student fees as a primary source of financing, consider several dimensions of the research enterprise. They explore the pandemic’s impact on research production and the uneven impacts on research careers, the consequences for research information where an accelerated shift to digital has placed research infrastructure under strain, as well as the prospects for research funding in an era of battered public finances and collapsing university budgets.
They found that, like other organisations, universities have reacted to the pandemic in three phases: they mobilised resources in the immediate term to secure the safety of their staff and students; they developed tactical responses to stabilise operations and navigate the new normal; and they are now called on to design strategies to emerge stronger in a post-COVID world.
Recommendations are provided along with further questions which need to be asked (and answered) in order to help inform universities, governments and funders as they develop their strategies going forward; to avoid unforeseen consequences and ensure the sustainability of research, the exact sector we are relying on to get us out of the crisis, throughout COVID-19 and beyond.
We have summarised the collective main findings and recommendations from the reports below but all three can be accessed here for further reading and analysis. There will also be a series of Springboard blogs over the coming weeks drawing out specific themes from the research in more detail along with recommended next steps for us and the wider research community.
Social-distancing measures have severely limited the ability to carry out research in all disciplines, delaying projects and creating uncertainty around time extensions and funding. In addition, the human impacts of the disruptions are vast. These include limitations and impediments facing international students and disruptions to researchers that differ by gender, caregiver status, and career level. Early career researchers (ECRs), many on fixed-term contracts, have been especially affected. Hiring freezes and university budget cuts mean that getting a job in academia is seen as ‘next to impossible’. Home working has had an uneven impact on research productivity. Women and younger researchers, who often have more caring responsibilities, ethnic minorities and researchers from disadvantaged backgrounds have been more negatively affected. This risks reducing diversity in the research workforce and reversing progress made over the past few years.
The pandemic created significant challenges for academic libraries, but their importance has been reaffirmed. The lockdown prevented physical access and social distancing still poses significant operational challenges. At the same time, the demand for digital resources has surged and the use of scholarly content has greatly increased during the crisis. On the other hand, the reduction in university income, coupled with increased demand for eBooks, is expected to put pressure on library budgets. The role of research during the pandemic has raised awareness of open science among researchers, decision-makers and the broader public, but the transition to open science might have been slowed since stakeholders had to focus on the ‘mobilise’ and ‘stabilise’ in the months after the outbreak of the pandemic, with fewer time for ‘strategizing’.
Since University budgets are strained, there is a dilemma for decision-makers at all levels. The consequences of their decisions are far reaching, since Universities are essential and make dramatic contributions to the health, wealth and well-being of the world because their capabilities can be turned to address known problems like today's pandemic and because their organization, funding, institutional commitments and missions keep them poised to help identify and respond to "unknown unknowns" in our future.
In responding to the pandemic, decision-makers can choose between two reasonable strategies that current budgetary, political and social pressures stand to make mutually exclusive. One approach would be to focus on existing capabilities to achieve known high priority goals, but consciously allow a reduction in diversity. Such an approach would likely see an increase in destructive competition among fields, units, missions and even institutions, and can lead to increasing concentration, homogenization, and instability. This could lead to a limitation in the range of fields and topics funded and make large scale interdisciplinary research and teaching more challenging. The other approach would be to prioritize the diversity of fields, people, missions and connections that make academic institutions unique.
The following overarching recommendations can be taken from the reports. Springer Nature supports these and will be looking to work with others across the research enterprise to see these implemented for the success and sustainability of research going forward.