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The Black Hole

Leadership in response to COVID-19: anticipating the fallout

The academic community is at risk of losing a large percentage of researchers, unless institutions and funding agencies start implementing proactive solutions.


The last few months have been filled with discussions on the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on the academy. This column has not been exempt, with recent entries addressing topics ranging from the fringe benefits of cancelled travel, disruption-induced mental health issues and career considerations, as well as the loss of passive social check-ins. Funding agencies, governments  and universities have all stepped in to help bear the financial cost of the intense upheaval and protect core research activities and researchers have pressed on where possible to help keep discoveries moving along (especially those related to COVID-19!).  These “solutions”, however, have been very reactive to the acute crisis of contracts/funding ending and are too incremental to address the core issue of losing a generation of scientists currently finding themselves in precarious or stalled career positions.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of people that are at highest career risk in academic circles as a result of COVID-19 lockdown. The first is the acute wave of researchers who are knowingly holding precarious career positions (e.g., postdoctoral fellows, non-tenured faculty). With tighter funding and numerous hiring freezes, the job market is terrible, networking is more or less non-existent, and grant funding for new researchers is not nearly as plentiful. The majority of solutions thus far have been targeted as a band-aid for this highly visible group of affected researchers – funding extensions to make up for lost time, online mentoring/networking sessions, and a general heightened awareness that this group is suffering. When the COVID-19 “bomb” was dropped, this group felt the immediate impact and screamed for help.

The second group is a much more troubling set of people for whom it is nigh on impossible to predict the impact. Just as “long COVID” has emerged as an area of patient impact – with some people wondering if they will ever get back to feeling normal – there will be lasting (and unpredictable) impacts of COVID-19 lockdown on the careers of academics. This is due to the delayed nature of the vast majority of things that determine the future success of academics – grants, papers, and research outcomes are all things that do not get realized within the timeframe of a few months. By comparison to the acute wave, these researchers cannot accurately frame or quantify the impact on their careers because the fallout of the COVID “bomb” has not yet fully manifested itself. Here is where bold leadership is needed to mitigate the impact on the careers of researchers.

This chronic impact will be disproportionately borne by those who have substantial caring and teaching responsibilities. Lockdown hasn’t simply meant limited access to research facilities and the impact on individuals has been very diverse. Yet again, additional strain will be placed on female researchers with respect to career advancement and it behooves institutions to enact fair plans for how researchers are assessed. A nice piece came out in The Conversation in August that summarized this:

This disproportionate effect on productivity of women has the potential to bleed women from academia. This will have a negative impact on the diversity that is critical for excellence in academia and in civil society. None of this is factored into promotion criteria or performance assessments, when women in academia compete directly with their male counterparts.

It will also be particularly hard to assess people who are undertaking both teaching and research compared to those only undertaking research or teaching. While this may not be a problem for institutions where the work is more or less 100 percent in one direction or the other, it will be an issue of critical importance for institutions that try to balance both. Teaching load has been dramatically increased this year with the uncertainties of face-to-face teaching versus online module development and the need to socially distance and run the same workshops/demonstrations over and over again. In my own case, I am not teaching this year but many researchers here at the University of York have their feet firmly in both camps and time for research has been dealt a heavy blow.

What should bold leadership look like? For those acutely affected and in precarious career positions, a number of institutions have begun to address this with funding extensions, but this may simply result in placing more people in a holding pen prior to their independent research position (i.e., delaying the problem). Universities need to recognize that these early career researchers in precarious positions represent millions in prior investment (the majority are in their 30s and have 10+ years of research experience) and this investment is potentially wasted if they are all forced out in a particular window of time due to the lockdown and the induction of financial austerity. Loosening the financial purse strings during a pandemic is not the easiest thing to ask of traditionally risk-averse universities, but they are considerably more resilient than the hotels and restaurants that are facing mountains of debt as a result of lockdown.

For those chronically affected and already in faculty positions, universities need to be clear about how they will consider personal and professional circumstances (i.e., increased load of caring, teaching, etc.) in a meaningful way. The boldest of leaders will recognize and address increased workloads with additional staff support to not simply “account” for lost productivity, but to actively address the restoration of that productivity. Again, the investment in this cohort of researchers who now find their time pinched by lockdown-induced increases in non-research responsibilities is considerable and we run the substantial risk of obliterating research careers if we don’t recognize this pattern early and address it with increased support and continued career progression.

I will finish with a practical suggestion for funding agencies and universities to work together. Many universities are dealing with a short-term financial pinch compounded by an increased uncertainty of student numbers and have effectively halted faculty recruitment. Funding agencies could plug that hole temporarily by putting additional cash into incentivizing academic institutions to identify and retain their very best people by creating future faculty positions for them. New early career researcher programs could be launched that focus on eventual job security but do not laden a department with immediate financial burden. They could provide three to five years of funding to an “almost independent” researcher and have the host institution commit to a five year faculty position following the award. This would further leverage the immense amount of local knowledge that a host institution has regarding promising young scientists. Also, it gives two levels of assessment – internal and external – thereby increasing the chances of protecting the very top tier of talent. It is imperative that we devise solutions to ensure that we do not lose a generation of researchers and we call on institutions and funders to think big about how to address the core issue of retaining talent.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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