“Although universities have been quite responsive and stood up pretty well to the challenges the pandemic has posed, early career researchers have been severely affected. The curtailed hiring of many universities (and companies), a direct consequence of short term economic effects, and the structure of finance of universities has come into question. We have many international students and a lot of the international money is what's actually underpinning the research funding within the system in the UK and some other countries. There is some high level thinking about whether we need to change some of our financial structure” says Professor Bogle of UCL Pro-Vice-Provost Doctoral School of University College London during his webinar on research disruption and mitigation strategies.
Excellence is not a synonym for excess
According to David Bogle, the isolation element and hyper competitiveness has affected early career researchers quite extensively leaving them feeling the need to produce the results in spite of not being able to access the library. In the last 5 years alone science has shifted to a direction where more has become the new better. This more being, more experiments per paper, more papers per year, more expectations and requirements for grants and tenure, more opinions from reviewers, a lengthy list of mores have taken over the academic mandate for excellence.
"Going forward, we really have to not be so focused on the short term issues and get away from numbers of papers, numbers of grants. I'd like to think the virus has made us a bit more empathetic and a bit more collegiate about these things,” says Professor Bogle.
As Daniel Rich, former Provost of the University of Delaware suggested, the most important restructuring of universities will not be in business practices, but rather in the allocation of academic assets, and specifically in the appointment and organization of the faculty. Universities are communities of scholars; how those communities are constituted, how they operate, and what they produce define the character and greatly determine the success of universities.
“I think we will really see a change in the way that we do work and research, be that in the humanities or the hard sciences. We can change the way we figure out space in our universities. Lots of laboratory spaces and office spaces are not really being used quite as effectively as they might be with not enough social space. What we need is space for collaborating, working together, agile working, so we must reconfigure space even in our very old and ancient campuses. Everybody wants innovation intensive economies nowadays, particularly in the developed world, so we do want these well trained, creative, critical, autonomous, intellectual risk takers to really drive innovation in our society,” says Professor Bogle.
Bridging the gap
“In spite of the efforts to increase the number of women in engineering, the female number of engineers have been absolutely flat for 10 years”, says Professor Bogle. Concerning the number of individuals and parents, particularly women in STEM, already dropping out on STEM fields, will undoubtedly suffer more from the present lab closures. The COVID-19 has only refuelled the much needed attention on diversity and underrepresented minorities issues plaguing academia, many of which begin with the loss of women and minorities during early career stages and may lead to further disenfranchisement of the disadvantaged (Malisch et al., 2020).
The Covid-19 crisis has magnified the importance of investment in research while simultaneously exposing issues plaguing academic science and prompting agencies, universities, and the public to rethink how we support scientists at individual and institutional levels.
Here is an unprecedented opportunity to reset.