Early- and mid-career researchers fear their careers are at risk due to pandemic

A person with long hair wearing a labcoat faces away from the camera.
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A new survey looking at the impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s early- and mid-career researcher (EMCR) workforce has found significant effects on their mental health and productivity.

The results have prompted a call for employers, governments and funding bodies to take action to support Australia’s future science leaders during this crucial time.

The nationally representative survey of 333 EMCRs was conducted by the Australian Academy of Science’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher (EMCR) Forum.

Top 4 Disruptions to Work. 1: Inability to participate in conference and training opportunities. 2: International and interstate research opportunities were halted. 3: Ability to travel to collect data was disrupted. 4: Ability to do lab work was affected.

The survey found increased anxiety and strains on mental health due to employment uncertainty, the need to manage competing priorities such as caring duties, changes in the workplace, and perceived loss of career prospects. It also found COVID-19 is likely to have a lasting impact on the careers and wellbeing of much of the workforce.

The report’s recommendations for government include extending JobKeeper to the university sector and other STEM employers currently ineligible.

Associate Professor Michael Bowen, Chair of the EMCR Forum. Photo: supplied.

The survey found the shift in workloads for EMCRs poses serious challenges for universities on how they evaluate staff for internal promotions, with many early-career researchers facing disrupted track records. Survey respondents reported research activities being replaced with more teaching and administrative tasks.

The survey also found female EMCRs with caring responsibilities and those who reduced their working hours were most affected by the pandemic.

Associate Professor Michael Bowen, Chair of the EMCR Forum, said EMCRs are the lifeblood of Australia’s STEM sector.

“This sector is critical to our nation’s current and future prosperity so it is essential that government, employers and funding bodies work together to prevent the loss of a generation of EMCRs and irreparable damage to the sector,” Associate Professor Bowen said.

Associate Professor Vanessa Wong, Co-Deputy Chair of the EMCR Forum. Photo: supplied.

With over half of all surveyed researchers funded by external funding bodies, the report also recommends guidelines be put in place for assessors of research funding applications, so the impact of COVID-19 can be properly considered.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will have significant and long-lasting effects on early- and mid-career researchers now, and into the future,” said Associate Professor Vanessa Wong, Co-Deputy Chair of the EMCR Forum.

“Without rapid and continued support by government, employers and funding bodies, there will be mass exodus from STEM sectors leading to a substantial brain drain and lost future capacity and capability to provide solutions to future challenges, such as the next pandemic.”

The survey follows the publication of a report by the Rapid Research Information Forum in May which also found that women and early-career researchers are among those that will disproportionately experience negative impacts of the pandemic.

Read the full survey report and recommendations.

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