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Pandemic threatens young researchers’ careers, rectors warn

Delays to projects and funding interruptions could create lost generation of German scientists, says HRK

The German Rectors’ Conference, an association of university leaders, has warned that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic could stifle the careers of young researchers and stall the entire science system.

In a position paper published last week, the HRK called on universities to consider the extra burden created by the coronavirus pandemic when making decisions on staff and promotions. The group listed numerous problems the pandemic has brought into academic life, including delays to projects and reduced access to workspaces.

“Since spring 2020, research work has frequently been interrupted or restricted due to the pandemic,” the HRK said.

Projects on hold

The group said it was not clear whether many projects put on hold during the pandemic would continue once the virus has abated. It said that networking and cooperation have been hindered by travel restrictions or event cancellations at short notice.

The HRK also said academics were worried about the medium-term effect of the pandemic on cooperation with industry, due to the poor economic outlook for Germany in 2021 and beyond.

As a result of such factors, funding for academic research could be curtailed by higher spending on measures to adjust to the pandemic and reduced external income, the HRK said. Research in projects supported by third parties will be particularly affected. If their projects are discontinued, there is often no means of extending their employment, the HRK warned.

“The negative consequences of the pandemic restrictions have been felt especially hard by researchers in the post-graduate qualification phase,” the position paper stated.  

Since qualification periods for early career academics are being prolonged, there are also fewer positions for the next cohort. Having to take on extra teaching duties impacted on the ability of these academics to develop a research profile, the HRK said.

“This task, so essential to an academic career, has been made more difficult due to the reduced opportunities to network with the relevant community and gain attention for individual work among one’s peers,” the HRK said.

Alleviating problems

The group said there were a number of steps that could be taken by universities and the German government to alleviate the problems. Hygiene measures should be strictly implemented on campus to prevent outbreaks and related lockdowns, it said, and universities must adapt promotion mechanisms to the pandemic.    

“In particular, the need to take on additional care responsibilities during the pandemic must be taken into account in a fair performance evaluation,” the position paper stated.

One possibility floated in the document is a gender-adjusted consideration when calculating a person’s “academic age”, the HRK said.

The HRK also called on federal state governments to provide more funding for additional costs caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In Germany, the federal states are responsible for day-to-day higher education funding.

“Universities are increasingly reaching the limits,” the rectors said. “The HRK executive board is calling on the federal government, federal states and other funding providers to continue measures to reduce the burden on universities. This includes compensation for reduced income to ensure successful project completion and research competence, and extra financing to cover additional costs and prevent career interruptions.”

Lastly, the HRK demanded more long-term funding for basic research at European level. “This is the only way to maintain innovation capability and strengthen societal resilience in future crises,” the group said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe