It would be nice to have a model similar to those which predict the infection process and its ramifications. How many potential top researchers will switch careers if working conditions and gratification systems remain as they are today? No one knows. What is clear, though, is that science is not good at taking care of its people.
Doubts not only among the young
A staggering 92 percent of all researchers under the age of 45 are employed only on a temporary basis at universities. 10 to 15 percent of doctoral researchers at non-university research organizations experience abuse of power and bullying. And 37 percent of the 24,000 doctoral researchers surveyed in the DZHW's National Academics Panel Study (in German, pdf) (DZHW: German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies) think about quitting: all the time (4), often (11) or occasionally (22). It is not only doctoral students who have the blues. In the pandemic, it also affects older researchers. In an OECD study, half of the respondents between the ages of 25 and 65 said they expected or had already suffered budget cuts. More than half expect the pandemic to make their jobs less secure and affect their career opportunities.
People carry on in old patterns [...] to keep a system alive that has actually outlived itself. Jens Maeße
Lockdowns, closed borders, restricted access to laboratories and libraries are slowing down the science system worldwide. PhD students and postdocs, who were caught in the pandemic during the field research phase, are being hit particularly hard. Politicians in Germany tried to avert the looming debacle by extending the qualification period for young scientists by one year to 13 years – but only for those employed between March 2020 and March 2021. Research funders such as the DFG and the Volkswagen Foundation also relaxed funding periods and budgets.
There is an increasing danger that science will lose many talented young researchers because they perceive their career chances diminishing. Peter Gumbsch
More time and more money certainly help to alleviate the distress. But they do not constitute a lasting remedy against cooling-out. Because in essence, everything remains the same, as sociologist Jens Maeße says: "People carry on in old patterns, attempting with minor extensions of deadlines to keep a system alive that has actually outlived itself." Maeße is researching how the pandemic is changing career paths in the field of economics. Spread over two survey phases, he is conducting interviews with 60 doctoral students, postdocs and professors in Germany and the UK. The initial interviews corroborate his assumption that "perhaps five to ten percent of researchers are able to effectively use the corona crisis for their careers" and attract attention via digital formats. "Profiteers are the well-connected singles who are free to invest their time in research. The majority, though, are just muddling through, and many will pull out completely," says Maeße.