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Protect the scientists of tomorrow from the impact of the pandemic

02 Feb 2021 Karel Green
Taken from the February 2021 issue of Physics World where it appeared under the headline "Protecting the scientists of tomorrow". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

Karel Green says that funders must support all PhD students due to the devastating effects on research caused by the COVID-19 pandemic

lab staff wearing masks
Need for support During COVID-19, most PhD students have faced problems continuing their research, ranging from reduced or zero lab access to increased responsibility for pastoral care. (Courtesy: iStock/DragonImages)

The COVID-19 pandemic, which began early last year, continues to have a devastating impact on research, with the UK last month entering a third national lockdown. The coronavirus has forced labs and universities to close around the world, with experiments grinding to a halt. Any PhD student who conducts lab work or depends on experimental data will have found themselves in an indefinite state of limbo.

In such circumstances it may seem obvious to allocate sufficient funding to allow any PhD student who has had their work held up by the pandemic to extend their research if they need to do so. But funders in the UK – one of the worst-hit countries – think otherwise. They have declared that only those in the final year of their PhDs can be granted an extension. Yet all students are working at a far lower rate than in the pre-COVID days, which is why this decision to give extra time only to those in their final year desperately needs to change.

In the case of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – the umbrella body for the seven UK research councils – funding extensions for final-year PhD students were introduced following the first UK lockdown in March 2020. Students reported, however, that the application process was stressful and the questions vague and tedious. Applicants had to prove that they could not finish within their initial funding period and had to request the length they would like to extend for. But since this funding was only available to students who applied, those worst affected by the pandemic – including those literally sick with COVID-19 – were not able to take advantage of it. According to the UKRI, the average extension requested was just under five months, but given the mental and physical toll of the pandemic as well as subsequent lockdowns, this time would likely have increased for many.

In a statement on 11 November 2020 the UKRI’s best solution after seven months of planning was a blanket recommendation that PhD students should simply alter their project to finish within their initial funding period. For those doctoral students who will find it hard to adjust their project, the UKRI offered a measly £19m – or 0.32% of its £6bn budget – in financial support. The way this latest grant allocation is set up threatens to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, with those from minority ethnic and/or working-class backgrounds, LGBT+ people, those with disabilities and those with dependents being most at risk. This policy threatens to further entrench the systemic inequalities already seen in many technical fields.

Many experimentalists chose their research area because they enjoy practical work or want to be part of a specific collaboration that fits their interest. PhD researchers are now expected to overhaul all their analysis – a task that is by no means easy if not impossible – with projects on the brink of being destroyed. PhD supervisors have spent countless hours converting years of lectures and seminars to work in an online format. That is on top of continuing “world class” research and other day-to-day life and academic responsibilities that may have changed drastically due to the pandemic. By the UKRI prompting academics and their PhD students to “act now” and essentially sort this massive issue out on their own, it is simply passing the buck, showing that the UKRI is not willing to provide competent support themselves. Indeed, this policy led the University and College Union to publish an open letter – signed by more than 1000 academics – condemning the UKRI’s decision and revealing that the UKRI failed to engage with people on the frontline of research, instead relying on consultation with managers and administrators.

Meaningful support

I have been extremely lucky. My PhD research has easily translated online, and I have been able to work during the pandemic. Despite these privileges, it seems the only effort has been put into preserving work and work alone. The innate issues that existed in being a PhD student have been exacerbated. This includes being interchangeably treated as staff or student depending on what is most convenient and being expendable labour – both of which create an environment unconducive to quality research.

Despite all this, I do not regret doing a PhD. I have learnt many skills I would not have otherwise. I get to work for an incredibly welcoming department with supervisors and academics who personally respect their PhD students and have gone above and beyond to make this situation as easy as possible for us. For this I am extremely grateful, and I would encourage anyone who is thinking of undertaking PhD research to do so. How you are treated can be problematic at times, but that is not unique to the field and allowing it to dissuade you will further entrench problems.

But more support needs to be forthcoming from funders to protect PhD students. We are the scientists of tomorrow and our work is constantly used throughout all stages of academia. The UKRI policy, as it stands, could eliminate a generation of vulnerable people who would otherwise make excellent researchers. Real, meaningful support means a default, funded, blanket extension for all, so that those who wish to complete their doctoral studies as they want to, can do so.

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