Hit hard by pandemic, researchers expect impacts to persist for years


The impacts of COVID-19 on Australian university researchers are likely to impact the productivity and quality of research for many years to come.

According to an online survey of academics at the University of Canberra between November 2020 and February 2021, they are deeply concerned about their ability to undertake research during the pandemic and the effects of it. The results are consistent with those from Research Australia from research in 2020 and 2021 and suggest the Australian research sector will take a heavy hit from COVID-19.

Knowledge produced by university research generates around 10% of Australia’s GDP. Without access to JobKeeper in 2020, universities in the sector have reduced casual staff and increased the teaching load of full-time academics. Combined with the challenges of working from home, this has had a real impact on research, not just now but in the longer term.

Read more: $ 7.6 billion and 11% researchers: our estimate of what Australian university research stands to lose by 2024

Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents said that educational commitments increased during the transition to online learning. Almost two-thirds reported delays in project milestones (63%) and publication (62%).

In addition to the reduction in research productivity, staff expressed concerns about the quality of the results as they are aware that their general mental well-being has been affected. As one scholar put it:

“Although I have completed the usual number of articles, I am concerned with their quality due to the feeling of being so overwhelmed by the work and impacts of COVID that I could not apply my usual critical judgments.”

The impacts on researchers are very uneven

About half (52%) of respondents have a positive opinion of the flexibility of working from home. In fact, we may see a shift in the work culture in the wake of the pandemic. An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey in June found that a third (33%) of Australians said working from home was the COVID aspect of life they would most like to continue.

However, working from home has not translated into work-life balance and productivity for many academics. National arrangements for a significant number of them have had an overall negative impact. These impacts particularly affected people with caregiving responsibilities.

Among those with children up to grade 12, 64% said that working from home had a negative impact on working hours, compared with 50% of those who did not have children at home. Those who had children at home were three times more likely to say their household responsibilities negatively impacted their research.

The impacts of COVID-19 on academic staff are not evenly distributed. There was a disproportionate gender impact, which is consistent with previous reports across the sector. The impacts were greatest on academics early in their careers, often with young families.

Bar chart showing the percentage of academics who say the pandemic has had an impact on national arrangements

This differential impact is reflected in other research on academic publishing, which shows that the gender gap is widening during the pandemic.

Read more: How COVID is widening the gender divide in universities

What does the future hold?

Research is a long-term endeavor. It takes years, if not decades, for research to bear fruit.

We asked respondents how they saw the future of their research. The majority felt pessimistic about all aspects of the research: funding, publication, collaboration and supervision of doctoral students. More than two-thirds of respondents had negative opinions about their ability to attract funding and pursue research projects in the near future.

More importantly, those with young families feel discouraged by their research careers. A majority of them say their ability to publish will be hampered over the next two to three years. This group is the future of Australian academic research, so the negative impact of COVID-19 is of great concern.

This is bad for Australia in terms of lost or delayed progress in science and technology, stalled or postponed progress in healthcare and treatment, reduced ability to inform public debate and less opportunities to contribute to Australia’s way of life and culture. The impacts of the pandemic on the emerging generation of researchers will have long-term consequences.

Read more: Early and mid-career scientists face bleak future in the wake of the pandemic

In June, the ABS survey on the impacts of the pandemic found that one in five Australians (20%) experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress as a result of COVID-19. This has not changed since last November. Like many Australians, academics are under tremendous pressure to try to balance work and family life.

In addition to concerns about the confusion between work and family life, we found evidence of low morale and burnout among staff. These results match those of a report released today by Professional Scientists Australia.

There is a need for government and universities to develop a tailored long-term strategy to support the research community. This will help ensure that Australia’s research efforts continue at a level above world-class, with the associated societal benefits it brings.

The survey and data analysis was carried out in collaboration with Janie Busby Grant, Elke Stracke, Simon Niemeyer, Roland Goecke and Dianne Gleeson at the University of Canberra.


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