By Paulina Carmona-Mora (University of California Davis, United States)

 

We in the scientific community – including those of us in higher education – have felt the effects the COVID-19 pandemic on science. Indeed, as laid out in the recent 2021 IAP-GYA joint communique, “faculty and student flexibility and mobility have been reduced, and university resources have been severely constrained and remain uncertain.”

Overall, science has been in the spotlight in the recent year, especially the scientific fields that directly inform the pandemic response (such as epidemiology, economics, public health, virology, pharmacology, to name a few), generating rapid input to support policies. Although the feedback between science and policy-making varied amply worldwide, the need for both sectors to work together to solve global issues has been highlighted. On the other hand, research fields not related to the pandemic response have been slowed down due to the pandemic mitigation and contention measures.

Early-career researchers (ECRs; this group includes PhD students, postdoctoral fellows, and scientists with approximately 10 years or less of experience after their doctoral degree) represent a vulnerable sector in research and higher education. Their challenges often include job insecurity and precarity, lower funding opportunities and less visibility. All of these were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Immediate challenges faced by researchers not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic response

  • Mobility restrictions affected access to laboratories, halted field work and modified the organisation of scientific conferences.
  • Challenging telecommuting conditions (issues include access to technology and connectivity, lack of childcare).
  • Reduced funding and furloughing of employees.
  • Expiration of funding or fellowships, with sub-optimal progress due to the previous challenges.

Long-term effects that could hit ERCs harder

  • Lack of data acquisition during the pandemic can cause reduced opportunities to secure new funding, new fellowships or attend future conferences, and it can also lead to the termination of research or contract positions.
  • Halted international mobility impacted ECRs’ visibility, created less valuable networking opportunities and chances to engage in international collaborations.
  • Although virtual interactions (conferences, workshops, webinars, etc.) have posed as inclusive alternatives to in-person interactions, internet access issues and difficulties to acquire specialised training (international exchanges, travel or training fellowships) can negatively impact future opportunities for ECRs.
  • Global disparities and differences in research systems worsened the issues faced during the pandemic, leaving ECRs in lower economies in a worst-case scenario. International competitiveness of ECRs in such countries will decrease.

ECRs-powered solutions

Since the pandemic was declared, the GYA has undertaken various activities to make the voice of ECRs present in multiple arenas.

  • GYA members issued Beyond Boundaries, a statement calling to strengthen international partnerships and to harmonise international policies towards the mitigation of the pandemic. The GYA has also participated in several statements jointly with the G7 group of academies, the United States Academies of Sciences and Medicine, and the group of G20 Science Academies (S20).
  • The GYA, along with the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP),  issued a joint communique highlighting some of the most pressing challenges for higher education globally, and proposed solutions to mitigate the further entrenchment of inequalities.
  • Tackling internet access disparities and addressing agenda issues due to time zone differences, the 2020 GYA e-AGM and e-conference combined real-time and asynchronous events, live discussions with pre-recorded presentations, including a subsidy for internet access for participants that required it.
  • The GYA’s Sasha Kagansky Interdisciplinary Grant and the Young Scientist Ambassador Program (YSAP) were also developed in virtual formats. These programmes aim to connect researchers across countries that do not traditionally engage through science. The first results of both programmes have shown that virtual engagement with a bilateral or country-specific focus can be valuable, when given meaningful opportunities to interact.
  • As all the involved parties are still trying to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ECRs, several GYA activities proposed to survey the effect on ECRs’ work and careers, to enable tailored solutions.
  • Capacity-building has gone virtual, with workshops for science leadership, science communication and science diplomacy reaching a wide range of ECRs globally.

Ways forward using global tools (extracted from Table 1 in 10.31235/osf.io/f9tsw)

Learning from GYA experiences, the next steps should involve input and action from ECRs and international societies, academies, and organisations to mitigate the effect of the current pandemic on young researchers.

How to increase visibility and networking opportunities for ECRs?
  • Promotion or support to intergovernmental associations to foster mobility of researchers between countries.
  • Furthering scientific interactions at multinational levels, focusing on less-developed countries.
How to increase international collaborations, especially for science-lagging countries, or Official Development Assistant (ODA) recipient countries?
  • Implement collaborative scientific schemes (including pilots or exploratory studies, without prerequisite data) with national, regional, and transnational stakeholders to promote scientific exchange.
  • Encourage the inclusion of science-lagging countries in international consortiums.
How to reduce the impact on ECRs from science-lagging or ODA-recipient countries?
  • Promote regional and transnational (Global North/South, South/South) funding programs to stimulate cooperation between scientists, and explicitly allowing equal engagement and direct interaction for ECRs.
How to reduce the impact of lower funding affecting professional networking activities?
  • Promote scientific mobility to international and intraregional loci.
  • Facilitate access (differential cost if not free of charge, or subsidizing ECRs) to scientific virtual meetings between scientists and other stakeholders.
How to address reduction in scientific funding due to the pandemic response?
  • International societies, academies, and organisations: advocate with governments and institutions to make visible all the fields of science and aim to influence public budget decisions.
  • Promote private investment in science allied with academia, prepare ECRs to interact in this interface.

 

Conclusion

The solutions and ways forward mentioned above will require dedication and collaboration, but we the undersigned feel they must be taken. If you have other solutions to add, or would like to work together with us on any of these topics, please do reach out to corresponding author, Paulina Carmona-Mora.

 

Note: This post is a summary of the GYA publication “Mitigating losses: How science diplomacy can address the impact of COVID-19 on early career researchers”, available here: 10.31235/osf.io/f9tsw). Authors: Sandra Lopez-Verges (Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies, Panama), Bernardo Urbani (Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, Venezuela), David Fernandez Rivas (University of Twente, The Netherlands), Sandeep Kaur-Ghumaan (University of Delhi, India), Anna Coussens (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia), Felix Moronta-Barrios (International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Italy), Suraj Bhattarai (Global Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, Nepal), Leila Niamir (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Germany), Velia Siciliano (Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Italy), Andreea Molnar (Swinburne University of Technology, Australia), Amanda Weltman (University of Cape Town, South Africa), Meghnath Dhimal (Nepal Health Research Council, Kathmandu, Nepal), Shalini S. Arya (Institute of Chemical Technology, India), Karen J. Cloete (University of the Western Cape, South Africa), Almas Taj Awan (Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil), Chandra Shekhar Sharma (Indian Institute of Technology, India), Clarissa Rios Rojas (Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom), Yoko Shimpuku (Hiroshima University Japan), John Ganle (University of Ghana, Ghana), Maryam M. Matin (Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran), Justine Germo Nzweundji (Institute of Medical Research and Medicinal Plants Studies, Cameroon), Abdeslam Badre (Mohammed 5 University in Rabat, Morocco), and Paulina Carmona-Mora (University of California Davis, United States).