The pandemic led to a surge in COVID-19 research, but it severely disrupted other fields—shuttering labs, restricting travel, and leaving scientists with young children struggling to work without adequate child care. A flurry of studies indicates the productivity of women scientists slowed during the pandemic to a greater extent than their male colleagues. Now, a survey of a large swath of the scientific community reveals those impacts may be felt for years to come because many investigators—especially women and those with young children—were unable to start new research projects in 2020.
“There may be a cliff looming on the horizon,” says Dashun Wang, a professor at Northwestern University who headed the survey effort, whose results were published today in Nature Communications.
Wang’s team polled 7000 U.S.- and Europe-based principal investigators in January, asking questions to gauge how their overall research activity and output in 2020 compared with 2019. Respondents who did not conduct COVID-19 research reported a drop in the number of papers they published (–9%) and manuscripts they submitted (–15%) to scientific journals. But the most glaring falloff came earlier in the research pipeline, as there was a 36% decrease in the initiation of projects. Women and parents of children 5 years of age or younger were especially hard hit, starting fewer projects compared with other scientists.
The findings are crucial to informing policies designed to support the careers of researchers impacted by pandemic disruptions, says Catherine Wagner, an assistant professor at the University of Wyoming who has written about the challenges she and other scientist mothers faced last year. In addition to offering tenure clock extensions, for example, institutions could better support child care, offer teaching releases, and fund seed grants that support new collaborations, she says. “It’s really important to consider how COVID-19 will impact productivity far into the future.”
The work dovetails with a previous study by Wang and his colleagues, which found that scientists spent seven fewer hours per week on research than usual during the first few weeks of the pandemic. Female scientists and those with young children experienced the greatest decreases in work hours. Researchers whose work depended on time-sensitive experiments or physical access to a lab space, such as those in the biological or chemical sciences, were also more severely impacted than those in math, statistics, or other disciplines.
In the new study, Wang’s team didn’t detect the same variation across disciplines. “No scientific fields were immune to the reduced number of new projects,” he and his colleagues write. But they did find a glimmer of good news: By January, research time had nearly recovered to prepandemic levels, as respondents reported working on research only 2 hours less per week than usual.
Respondents weren’t asked to give details about what prevented new projects from getting off the ground. Wang says it could reflect fewer new collaborations forming, fewer new grant applications being submitted, or fewer new graduate students or postdocs starting in the researchers’ labs. The findings aren’t surprising to Courtney Jones, a scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre who runs a support group for early-career researchers at her institution, where she started in 2020. “I was much more conservative about starting new high-risk projects than I originally planned to be, due to uncertainly around research funding,” she says. “Travel restrictions also made it much harder to recruit postdoctoral fellows, which limited the number of projects my lab could start.”
Wang notes that it often takes 3 years or more for research to go from the conceptualization stage to a published paper. So short-term policies designed to mitigate the immediate impact of COVID-19 lockdowns and disruptions, such as extended grant deadlines and 1-year tenure clock extensions, might be insufficient to guard against this long-term fallout. He’s particularly worried about women and parents, who have consistently been found to have experienced the largest decline in research productivity.
“The pandemic is placing this distorted lens on issues that have created biases all along,” Wagner says. “The things that leadership and administrators do to help in the wake of the pandemic—if these could persist longer, they could be really helpful [in eliminating long-standing gender disparities].”