The pandemic has had a major impact on academics affecting their research and mental health, and raising concerns over future career prospects, according to a new survey.

The Careers Research and Advisory Centre surveyed researchers between February and March this year. The 1347 respondents had taken part in an earlier survey in June 2020.

At the time of the survey, almost half of respondents had returned to pre-Covid-19 working hours. A quarter were working more hours (up from 20% in June 2020) than they had pre-pandemic, and almost a third were working fewer hours (down from 40% in 2020).

Almost 60% reported that Covid-19 had made it impossible to do the research they planned while 40% were forced to change research direction. This was mainly due to less in-person contact as well as lack of access to research facilities and resources.

Lockdowns and the safe working restrictions have significantly slowed the pace of research

Nick Le Brun, University of East Anglia

Researchers reported spending more time on peer-review activities, teaching and writing than pre-pandemic and since June 2020. In the first survey, three in 10 reported reducing their research so they could manage an increased teaching load. In this survey, around half of respondents said teaching and administrative duties had reduced time for research.

However, some benefits had emerged. Over half (56%) reported that less commuting and less work-related travel (43%) gave them more time for research. Overall, 27% agreed the pandemic had provided unexpected opportunities for research.

Generally, levels of wellbeing and mental health were poor; for example, three quarters said they had probable or possible depression; and 11% had experienced bullying and harassment over the last year, with two thirds of these reporting this was higher than before Covid-19 restrictions. There were also mixed views on how well funding bodies had supported researchers, with 45% thinking they had not been given clear information and 33% taking the opposite view.

Slow progress

‘The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges,’ says Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which funded the survey. ‘The community has responded superbly, but at great personal cost to many, who have been working under very difficult circumstances.’

Covid-19 has had a huge impact on virtually all lab-based researchers, says Nick Le Brun, head of the school of chemistry at the University of East Anglia. ‘Lockdowns and the safe working restrictions put in laboratories have significantly slowed the pace of research. Availability of consumables and equipment have also been affected, contributing further to delays.’ 

‘There is no doubt that the necessary social distancing restrictions in labs have made it difficult for researchers and students,’ agrees Emma Raven, head of the school of chemistry at the University of Bristol. ‘The limited occupancies in buildings have also meant that fewer staff have been on campus, which means that our normal face-to-face to interactions have also been restricted. Certainly at Bristol we are looking forward to getting back to full occupancies and more regular interactions with staff and students.’

The findings relating to mental health are particularly worrying, if not surprising, Le Brun says, and are probably replicated across society. The reports of bullying and harassment are especially concerning, he adds. ‘In general, I think things are improving, aided by clear institutional policies on tackling bullying/harassment, and shifts in research culture that are changing perceptions of acceptable behaviour. Clearly, this is a slow process. Much progress has been, and is being, made, but there is more to do.’ 

On the positive side, Le Brun thinks funding bodies and universities/research institutes have responded well with PhD study period and grant extensions (in some cases with additional funding), and allowances for adjustments to research plans. 

However, this view is not shared by Jo Grady, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union. ‘It’s a tragedy that so many scientists funded through UKRI have had their research impacted by the pandemic, but the government and UKRI have repeatedly refused to step up and properly support them. We should be seeing costed extensions across the board to limit the damage to their research.’ 

Grady points out that most UKRI-funded scientists are not treated as staff and miss out on some of the most basic benefits, such as access to sick leave and parental leave. ‘It is no wonder that so many are experiencing poor mental health when they work under these conditions. Unfortunately, these findings are further evidence of the mental health problems endemic in higher education, a sector rife with casualised, insecure work and unsupportive management.’