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Short-term research contracts and the effects of COVID-19

Written by: Lucky Cullen
Published on: 8 Sep 2022

Most researchers are driven by intellectual curiosity rather than the desire for financial reward, but for post-docs, who can spend years on a succession of short-term contracts, this can make a career in science an unattractive option. According to the latest figures, around 54% of all science and technology researchers working in UK universities are employed on fixed-term contracts as contracted research staff. In 2001, the House of Commons Science and Technology select committee conducted an inquiry into short-term research contracts. The report highlighted several concerns for researchers on short-term contracts, including career insecurity, increasingly uncompetitive salaries and lack of a clear career structure, and called for improvements to employment terms for science researchers. Since then, institutions and organisations have put measures in place to support the careers of researchers but unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the situation for many post-doctoral researchers.

A recent Nature survey asked post-doctoral researchers how the pandemic is affecting their current and future career plans. The poll ran in June and July 2020, with more than 7600 people responding across 19 disciplines. Six out of ten respondents thought the pandemic has worsened their career prospects, with 51% of respondents considering leaving active research because of work-related mental-health concerns. To assess the impact of COVID-19 on the AMI (then SfAM) membership, we included a question in our end-of-year membership survey on whether members had considered changing research area, sector (academic, industry etc.) and/or career because of the impact of COVID-19. A staggering 18.6% stated they have considered changing research career due to the impact of COVID-19. It would be horribly ironic to lose a generation of microbiologists because of an infectious disease.

Exposing and widening cracks

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the pre-existing challenges and inequalities for researchers on short-term contracts. The unprecedented financial uncertainty due to COVID-19 has resulted in university-wide recruitment freezes and incited job losses for staff on fixed-term contracts. Concerningly, the university-wide recruitment freeze could worsen the uncertainty faced by post-doctoral researchers on short-term contracts, as research positions and promotion opportunities may be delayed or limited. The effects of COVID-19 also included a drop in productivity during the end of pre-pandemic contracts due to issues surrounding career stability and individuals having to spend time job-hunting and preparing for interviews.

Lab accessibility

The majority of post-doctoral researchers in microbiology perform ‘wet lab’ research that has been hit hard by COVID-19 with regard to both lab access and competition for resources. Numerous concerns have been raised over the long-term implications of restricted laboratory access. Some researchers are still unable to access the laboratory to complete essential data collection and other project milestones, impacting publication records, funding retention and ultimately career progression. For post-doctoral researchers with children or caring responsibilities this has presented an even greater challenge, widening the gaps and exacerbating the inequalities in research careers.

Funding discrepancies

The impact of COVID-19 on research funding has been very diverse, with discrepancies across the different funding bodies. These disparities have considerably influenced the ability of funders to support current researchers through post-doctoral extensions and to continue funding throughout the pandemic. Additionally, there are growing fears over the coverage of funding across different research institutions. Financial support is urgently required across all (not just Russell Group) universities, in order to ensure they can remain active in the future.

The issues outlined above were further compounded by a lack of guidance and clarity in the communication between funders and researchers. Many researchers in the UK revealed that, despite the urgent need for post-doctoral extensions, they were informed that if furlough was not taken they could not go back to UKRI and request an extension. Despite this, some researchers were only notified that they were going to be furloughed in June 2020, which had major effects for individual researchers.

At present, COVID-19 research has been prioritised over other areas of microbiology; however, there are fears that COVID-19 research will continue to attract a disproportionate share of funding for many years to come. Sadly, this infectious disease has increased the precarity for many microbiology post-docs at a time when we can ill-afford to lose them.