Adjusting scholarship expectations after the pandemic ends

Standard

For most of us, academic productivity has taken a huge hit over the past year. And that’s fine. If you’re working from home full time while raising young children doing remote schooling, I can’t imagine how you have done anything above the bare minimum. For the rest of us, it’s entirely reasonable to have not done that much either. I’m glad that many of our universities are scaling expectations based on the reality that academic productivity during a pandemic is difficult, at best.

But honestly, I’m much more worried about what will happen once the pandemic is over. The downstream effects of the pandemic on our academic productivity might be greatest a few years down the line. This varies among disciplines, but for most of us, I think most important publications originate in our research pipeline multiple years before they come to press.

For example, in the past year, my productivity doesn’t look hideous, on paper. I published a couple articles and an actual book. All of those things were deep in the works before the pandemic started. The real cost of the pandemic is going to be seen in the next few years. I’m thinking about all of the projects that we didn’t start during the pandemic, and the ones we had started before the pandemic that haven’t been advanced forward. And even worse, the ones that we started and then because they stalled, and will need even more effort just to ramp back up to where we were. Not to mention all of the grants that we didn’t submit.

Please know that the impact of this pandemic is highly gendered. The data clearly demonstrate that women are submitting fewer manuscripts than men, because of the pandemic. This will have lasting effects on our academic community, especially if our institutions don’t adapt expectations of scholarly productivity not just during the pandemic but for several years afterwards. (It sure would be a lot better if men did equal amount of domestic labor and institutional service work, but apparently that’s still not happening? This is presumably why providing parental leave actually increases the academic productivity of men, and results in higher tenure rates, even though parental leave for women results in causes lower tenure rates? What the hell??)

I can imagine that a lot of people running universities will underestimate how a 1-2 year interruption of academic research will result in a long-term disruption of productivity. Keep in mind that for many of us, our labs will have lost people with expertise, who haven’t had the opportunity to provide hands-on training to the next generation. A lot of labs operate on momentum, and when that momentum is lost, it can’t just be regenerated quickly, it will take a while to get up to speed. As currently funded projects are being slow in creating results, submitting for a new project is more difficult, too.

In our university system, an organization is providing extremely modest ‘restart’ funds to get our labs ramped back up after having to shut down. But the amount of this funding is very limited. I sincerely appreciate the intent and also the fact that funds are very limited. What we really need more is a recognition that it’s okay to experience disruption, and some understanding that it will take a while to get up to speed.

What we keep seeing — in all aspects of our society, including science — is how `the pandemic is amplifying existing inequities. Just as we mustn’t shortchange those of us who are harmed by the pandemic, we shouldn’t be showering rewards on those who have suffered the least negative effects of the pandemic. Operating with an equity lens in the aftermath of this pandemic will require us to become more informed about how the pandemic is affecting different members of our community. It’s not enough to be open to empathy, we’ve got to do the work to listen and understand, and then translate that into institutional policy.

Are you a chair, or a dean, or on a tenure committee, or on a decison-making body of some sort, or do you have an opportunity to set university policy? Then you’ve got to make sure that all of your prior diversity recruitment efforts are backed up by action and resources to retain and support the people in your community who are experiencing more stress and performing more labor because of the pandemic.