Published: 11th October 2021
Hit hard by the pandemic, Australian researchers expect its impacts to linger for years
Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents reported an increase in teaching commitments in the transition to online learning
The impact of COVID-19 on Australian university researchers is likely to have consequences for research productivity and quality for many years to come, indicate recent findings. According to an online survey of academics at the University of Canberra between November 2020 and February 2021, they have deep concerns about their ability to undertake research during the pandemic and the flow-on effects of this. The findings are consistent with those of Research Australia and suggest Australia's research sector will take a substantial hit due to COVID-19. The knowledge produced by university research generates an estimated 10% of Australia's GDP.
Without access to the JobKeeper Payments scheme in 2020, under which the Government will provide $1,500 per employee for a business that has been affected by COVID-19, universities cut back on casual staff and increased the teaching load of full-time academicians. Combined with the challenges of working from home, this has had a real impact on research, not just immediately but in the longer term. Almost three-quarters (73%) of respondents reported an increase in teaching commitments in the transition to online learning. Almost two-thirds reported delays in project milestones (63%) and publication (62%).
In addition to reduced research productivity, staff expressed concerns over the quality of output as they are aware their general mental well-being has been affected. As one academic said, “Although I have completed the usual number of papers, I am concerned about their quality due to the sense of being so overwhelmed by work and I couldn't apply my usual critical judgments.” Impact on researchers is highly uneven. About half (52%) of respondents felt positive about the flexibility of working from home. In fact, we may see a shift in the work culture following the pandemic.
An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey in June reported that one-third (33%) of Australians said that working from home was the aspect of COVID life they would most like to continue. However, working from home did not translate into work-life balance and productivity for many academics. Domestic arrangements for a significant number have had an overall negative impact. These impacts particularly affected those with carers' responsibilities. Of those with children up to year 12, 64% said working at home had a negative impact on the hours of work, compared to 50% of those with no children at home. Those with children at home were three times more likely to say their domestic responsibilities had a negative impact on their research.
There was a disproportionate gender impact as well, which is in line with previous reports across the sector. Impacts were greatest on academicians in the early stages of their careers, often with young families. This differential impact is reflected in other research into academic publishing, which shows the gender gap widening during the pandemic.
What does the future hold? Research is a long-term endeavour. It takes years and even decades for research to come to fruition. A majority of researchers felt pessimistic about all aspects of research: funding, publication, collaborating and supervising PhD students. More than two-thirds of respondents had negative views about their ability to attract funding and pursue research projects in the near future. More importantly, those who have young families are despondent about their research careers. A majority of them say that their ability to publish will be hampered for the next two to three years.
In June, the ABS survey found that one in five (20%) Australians experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress due to COVID-19. This has not changed since last November. Like many Australians, academicians are under enormous pressure trying to balance work and home. These findings match those of a report released recently by Professional Scientists Australia. There is a need for both the government and universities to develop a long-term, tailored strategy to support the research community.