COVID pandemic has hurt researchers’ productivity – and mental health

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Masked neurobiologists at work at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru.Credit: Ernesto Benavides / AFP via Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously damaged the productivity and mental health of researchers, according to two studies that interviewed scientists in Europe and the United States, although researchers may show the first signs of recovery from the disruptions.

The full impact of the pandemic could take years to make itself felt in academia, and researchers studying the issue warn that action is urgently needed to support scientists hardest hit by the disruptions, especially those hardest hit by the disruption. women, parents of young children and people of color.

“The worst may be yet to come,” says Dashun Wang, a network science researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., Who conducted a study involving two polls with a total of nearly 7 000 principal investigators, conducted nine months apart.1.

When the first survey was conducted in April 2020, at the start of the pandemic, scientists were already spending much less time on research than before the pandemic. But in January 2021, when Wang’s team conducted another survey of researchers, they found that this effect had largely abated (see “Productivity issues”).

PRODUCTIVITY ISSUES.  Surveys of researchers in the United States and Europe have found that the pandemic has affected productivity.

Source: Ref 1.

Fewer new collaborations

The most recent poll also found that research results fell for many researchers last year, compared to 2019. Scientists who are not working on COVID-related projects reported that their new publications and submissions had fallen 9% and 15% in 2020, respectively.

More troubling, Wang says, is that scientists launched fewer research projects overall in 2020, with an average drop of 26% from 2019.

“It’s the generation of these new projects that is so important,” says Reshma Jagsi, an oncologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Fewer new ideas could snowball into fewer posts and fundraising opportunities later, she says.

And although scientists conducting research related to COVID-19 saw a 15% increase in the number of new collaborators in 2020 compared to 2019, other scientists saw a 32% drop. This might not show up in the publication record for three or four years, Wang says, due to the time it takes for new collaborations to generate articles.

Psychological factors could also be at play in the drought of new ideas. When dealing with seizures, Wang says, “We have this kind of tunnel vision, trying to focus on one thing instead of looking more broadly and creatively. “

Grim picture of mental health

The results of another survey, released last month2, paint a grim picture of the mental health of academic staff in the UK, which the researchers say could affect scientists’ enthusiasm to launch new projects and collaborations (see “Retarded Optimism”).

Two thousand employees of UK higher education institutions were interviewed in March and April this year on behalf of Education Support, a London-based charity that focuses on the mental health of education professionals. Almost two-thirds reported feeling emotionally drained – a measure of burnout – at least once a week, and more than a quarter reported feeling that way every day.

Work, especially around online education, has intensified and pressures have increased for many academics, says psychologist Siobhan Wray of the University of Lincoln in the UK, co-author of the report.

OPTIMISM IS RETURNED.  The results of a survey of British academics show that many scientists are struggling to cope.

Source: Ref 2.

“If people are facing so much anxiety and stress and their mental health is not good, this is not the ideal situation to imagine his most innovative, high impact and research study designs. rigorous for next year, ”says Jagsi.

Another analysis3 by Wang and colleagues from the 2020 survey data, released in July 2020, found that the negative impacts of the pandemic disproportionately affected women scientists and scientists with young children, with time spent caring for children.

The gender gap has appeared in several other studies. An analysis of the manuscripts4 submitted to more than 2,000 journals published by Amsterdam-based Elsevier found that women submitted proportionately fewer manuscripts than men from February to May of last year, despite a surge in publishing activity around this time – submissions to Elsevier journals jumped 30% compared to the same period in 2019.

Widening gender and racial gaps

A study of Brazilian academics5 also found that being a mother or a scientist of color worsened the pandemic’s effects on productivity. Black women researchers with children were therefore the hardest hit in April and May 2020, submitting less than half of the papers they had planned, while white men without children had little impact on planned submissions.

“We expected to see effects on gender and parenting, but the racial effect was surprising to us,” says Fernanda Staniscuaski, molecular biologist at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sol in Porto Alegre, Brazil, who led the study. She suspects that black scientists in Brazil and elsewhere can often be more academically isolated – and become more so during the pandemic, missing out on the benefits of being part of well-connected professional networks.

Staniscuaski warns that without plans to help the researchers most affected recover from the repercussions of the pandemic, some could enter a “vicious cycle” of fewer publications and career opportunities in the years to come.

Wang argues that acting now could help limit future impacts on research results. “Short-term investments,” such as in child care support, will produce “long-term benefits,” he says.


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