Building a better research culture means overhauling the way we think about reward and recognition – the pandemic has only made this clearer. The metrics used to assess researchers don’t tell the whole story of what, and how, they contribute. And with lockdown affecting researchers in so many different ways, we must be able to take individual circumstances into account. Funders need to work flexibly and be realistic about what researchers can achieve.
Some academics have completely changed the direction of their work to focus on the crisis, others have paused their research as they return to frontline hospital duties. The shuttering of academic labs has had a profoundly disruptive effect across the community, leaving early-career researchers particularly vulnerable.
Then, there are all those juggling caring responsibilities and home-schooling. There’s widespread concern that extra pressures could be exacerbating the existing gender imbalance, leading to fewer outputs from female academics. An online letter calling on funders to take caring commitments into consideration recently attracted hundreds of signatures.
So, how can funders address these inequalities fairly when assessing applications? We can’t just write off the past six months – people from across the sector have been making incredible contributions in the face of adversity.
Our answer will involve working on a case-by-case basis, giving researchers space to tell us about how the pandemic has affected their work. We want to assess researchers’ contributions more holistically, considering the impact of their research, but also the impact they make on the sector through things like mentoring, good leadership and public engagement. This person-centred approach should have life well beyond the confines of COVID-19, helping us learn how to identify and fund those who make the biggest difference in research in the long-run.