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COVID-19 Survey Shows One-Third of Researchers Could Leave Neuroscience

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A UK-wide survey has exposed the damaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on neuroscience research. A third of respondents to the survey, organized by the British Neuroscience Association (BNA), said that they were considering leaving the field. Nearly nine in ten respondents felt that the pandemic had had a negative impact on their research. The survey, recorded between May and June, highlights the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic across academia, the full effects of which are still to be felt.

The survey findings were published yesterday (18th June) by the BNA. The findings reveal huge anxiety among researchers around the future of their work in a post-pandemic world.

The survey found that researchers had felt immediate impacts of COVID-19 on their work:

  • 86% of respondents were working from home most or all of the time
  • Just 3% of respondents were still working at an onsite location
  • 88% had felt a negative impact of the pandemic on their work; 46% felt a strongly negative impact

Over 400 neuroscience researchers from around the UK contributed to the survey, with the majority of respondents in early career researcher positions. The survey showed an uncertain outlook for researchers whose external funding timelines have been thrown into jeopardy. Over a quarter of researchers had requested further funding to maintain their research. Worryingly, just under half of these respondents reported that their requests had gone unanswered.

The survey included quotes from respondents that bring into sharp focus the human cost of a field put into stasis. “My fellowship is due to finish next year. We have received a three-month salary extension and a six-month extension to the end date. However, this year was the key year to be collecting the data after several years of training the animals and developing the new techniques to use in my lab. I am worried that there won't be enough time to re-train the animals and complete all the experiments in time. We have had to maintain the implants on the animals, which has been difficult as we continue to go into work and clean them but can't train them or collect any data from them,” said a senior academic behavioural scientist who contributed to the survey.

Pandemic attrition

Speaking to Technology Networks Anne Cooke, CEO of the BNA, said the most concerning reports from the survey were about the number of researcher looking to a future outside of science. “The most worrying and surprising finding was about the number of people who are considering or really think they will have to leave frontline neuroscience research as a direct result of coronavirus. I think we anticipated responses that the impact had been negative, but I think the finding that people really thought they wouldn't be able to carry on was, for me, the most shocking result.”

The early stages of research have a notoriously high attrition rate, but Cooke said that some of the respondents’ insights suggest that COVID-19 is exerting an additional pressure to leave the sector. “One of our next steps will be digging into these key findings more,” said Cooke. “When you look at the career pyramid in science, you get a lot of early-career researchers who leave science naturally. But when we looked at the comments behind the survey, we realized that this is a direct result of coronavirus, this isn’t just the natural career progression attrition that you get at that stage.”

Cooke continued, “People commenting on the fact that they've had to look after children at home has had a really detrimental effect. They are no longer going to be able to compete their research project. They therefore don't think they'll get the next fellowship or the next set of funding.”

When will neuroscience get back on track? 

Whilst around half of respondents hoped that their work will resume pre-lockdown levels by the end of 2020, four out of five believed that this progress will be hindered by insufficient funding. Additional concerns for respondents included:

  • A lack of guidance from their employer about returning to work
  • How researchers with teaching roles would be asked to coordinate online tutelage whilst juggling their research
  • Facilities they work in not being ready

The BNA have written a letter to the science minister, Amanda Solloway MP, asking for clarity on how existing projects will be brought back on track.

Joseph Clift, the BNA’s head of policy, said any response should support researchers as they return to the workplace and also secure supplies of lab equipment that have been disrupted by the pandemic. “What researchers need now is little bit more detail on how those funds can help support efforts to salvage research,” said Clift.