Could the next generation of researchers be lost in the aftermath of Covid-19?

3rd June 2020

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Darren Powell -
University of Auckland

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Tom Baker -
University of Auckland

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Sylvia Nissen -
Lincoln University

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Sereana Naepi -
University of Auckland

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Annette Bolton -

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Lucy Stewart -
Toha Foundry

The current Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of a robust research sector. Not only have researchers been critical in the immediate response from scientific and public health perspectives, but the embedded social, cultural, economic, environmental and political knowledge of researchers will be vital as we begin to the long process of recovering from the pandemic.
Yet ironically, it is the next generation of research leaders, often referred to as ‘early career researchers’, that are particularly exposed by the current situation.

As countries continue to grapple with the impact of Covid-19, there are clear signs that the research sector is about to undergo significant reform. With the prospect of decreased revenue, universities and other public, private, and philanthropic research organisations are preparing to manage income shortfalls by reducing the costs of permanent employees, freezing new appointments, and increasing their use of casual employment.

These reforms – in particular those relating to the casualised research workforce – will worsen the precarious conditions for early career researchers.

Across all sectors, people entering the job market and those on casual contracts often suffer the worst part of economic crises. This is likely to be of critical consequence in the research sector, where the ‘pipeline’ into permanent positions has become rapidly blocked and broken. The economic response to Covid-19 is likely to place far more pressure on this pipeline.

Early career researchers are now faced with a particular dilemma. Those who are attempting to enter the job market are likely to be encounter organisations that have employment freezes, fewer (if any) permanent positions available, and subsequently much tougher competition. Those early career researchers who are employed are often on multiple casual or fixed-term contracts and are positioned as a somewhat disposable and cheap resource, with poor job security, few employment benefits, poor pay. These roles are often first on the ‘chopping block’ when an organisation needs to make cuts, as they have weak legal protection and are at significant risk of exploitation. Many of these contracts are also a year or less, and unlikely to be renewed.

Why do early career researchers matter? In a trite but true sense, early career researchers are both the present and future of research.

They work at the coalface of important research, often as critical members of larger research teams, to produce original, innovative and valuable research; work that contributes to communities, wider society, and our environment. However, it is work that is often invisible, with early career researchers hidden in the shadows of senior researchers who have already secured vital funding, strong publication records, and their jobs.

Globally, early career researchers will share some similar ramifications from the post-Covid recovery: precarity, casualisation, insecurity. However, it must also be made clear that the impact on different researchers in diverse social contexts will not be equitable. Some will fare better than others, but not necessarily due to chance, diligence, or intelligence. In a post-Covid world, researchers who are women, non-binary, people of colour, indigenous, disabled, queer, fat, and/or from working-class or poor backgrounds, may be even further marginalised by the structural inequities and power imbalances created and maintained by research institutions long before Covid-19 hit our collective shores.

For the research sector to be able to effectively address wide-ranging scientific, social, cultural, environmental and economic challenges, and meet the diverse needs of local, national and international communities, research organisations must build new structures and systems on foundations of equity, justice, and fairness.

As governments grapple with the aftermath of the pandemic, the research sector must re-think and re-imagine early career researchers; not as a cheap and disposable resource for the present, but people whose lives skills are important and whose work can fundamentally re-shape our future.

This article was adapted with permission from a piece originally published in The Spinoff. The original article can be found here.