Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

ScienceMay 4, 2020

Covid-19 isn’t quite the boon for science researchers it might seem

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Covid-19 could erase the next generation of New Zealand research leaders, write a group of academics who’ve been looking into the issue.

In the wake of Covid-19, the research sector is bracing for contraction. Around the world, there are already indications that universities and other public research organisations are considering shedding jobs and freezing new appointments. In the corporate sector too, there are signs that research and development may contract as executives look for savings in non-core functions.

The Covid-19 response has demonstrated the importance of a robust research sector. Science communicators, epidemiologists and other researchers are now well known by the public. Take Siouxsie Wiles’ writing in The Spinoff, for example.

But ironically, it is the next generation of research leaders, often referred to as “early career researchers”, that are particularly exposed by the current situation.

In all industries, people entering the job market and those on fixed-term contracts tend to bear the brunt of unemployment crises. This is likely to be acute in the research sector, where short-term contracts and tight bottlenecks into permanent positions have become entrenched conditions for early career researchers over several decades.

They face a double bind. On one hand, people lucky to be employed are often on fixed-term contracts that don’t offer job security, and are tempting targets for those looking to make quick cuts. On the other, people looking for employment are faced with hiring freezes, fewer advertised positions and fiercer competition.

In 2018, as part of our roles within the Early Career Researcher Forum of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, we surveyed over 700 early career researchers in Aotearoa New Zealand. Our survey showed the majority have a strong desire to live here and contribute to research in this country, with three quarters wanting to stay for the medium and long term.

Early career researchers are the future of the research workforce.

They are at the cutting-edge of their fields, and in scientific fields in particular, they are a crucial part of large research teams, bringing new ideas and enthusiasm. They are also often the work horses of the research sector. With little job security, they do critical work that contributes to headline-grabbing discoveries, often in the shadow of better-known and better-recognised senior researchers whose jobs will likely be far more secure.

Early career researchers are also more diverse than the research workforce at large. For example, two thirds of our survey respondents were female, and there is every reason to fear that the uneven impacts of a contracting research workforce will favour segments where women are less well represented, meaning junior cohorts of female researchers will be locked out of stable careers. Reports are already emerging of gender disparities in research journal submissions as lockdowns kick in and women take up additional caring responsibilities.

If we are to stand a chance of making the research workforce reflect the make up of society today, not least the under-representation of Māori and Pacific researchers in Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to encourage, not close down, a thriving cohort of early career researchers.

And despite the common assumption, they’re not necessarily young. Our survey showed that only 20% of respondents were aged 30 or under. They are often people with significant professional and life experiences, who have much to offer the research sector as well as the communities in which they are embedded.

Early career researchers aspire to apply their research skills to the social, cultural, environmental and economic challenges of our time and place. They hope to encourage us to know ourselves better; to have the difficult, but necessary conversations that aim to serve and improve our local, national and international communities.

As the research sector navigates the challenging tasks of responding to, and recovering from, Covid-19, we need to recognise the impacts on early career researchers are acute and there is much to be gained from supporting them as we plan for the months and years ahead.


The Early Career Researcher Forum of the Royal Society Te Apārangi will be hosting a series of web discussions on Covid-19 and ECRs. The first is on Friday 8 May at 1pm and focuses on the impacts of Covid-19 on ECR careers and possible responses. All are welcome.

This piece was written by Dr Tom Baker, University of Auckland; Dr Annette Bolton, ESR; Dr Sylvia Nissen, Lincoln University; Dr Darren Powell, University of Auckland; Dr Lucy Stewart, Toha Foundry. All authors are committee members of the Early Career Researcher Forum of the Royal Society Te Apārangi ​

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