Faculty are concerned about research assessment in the wake of COVID-19

The emergence of the corona virus this winter led to the unprecedented global stoppage of academic research. To identify faculty challenges in the wake of the pandemic, DORA co-sponsored a webinar with Rescuing Biomedical Research (RBR) on May 7, 2020.

The webinar featured Chris Pickett, director of RBR; Prachee Avasthi, assistant professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center and founder of New-PI Slack; Heather Hundley, associate professor at Indiana University School of Medicine; and Anna Hatch, DORA program director. This was the third webinar in a series of four hosted by RBR to understand the full impact of the corona virus on the biomedical workforce. Other topics included trainee concerns, concerns of underrepresented and minoritized researchers, and pandemic preparedness.

Starting in mid-February, research that needed to be conducted in a laboratory or another setting on campus was dramatically scaled back or, more likely, stopped completely. This disruption has drawn attention to long-standing challenges in academia, including the ways that researchers are assessed for hiring, promotion, and tenure. Figuring out how to put the academic workforce on a better footing following the pandemic is a major question that needs to be addressed, according to Pickett.

DORA has called on universities to redefine their expectations for productivity in the wake of COVID-19 and to clearly communicate to academics and researchers how they will modify research evaluation procedures for hiring, promotion, and tenure. Many universities have extended the tenure clock by a year, but that might not be enough, said Hatch. Expectations have to take the disruption caused by the pandemic into consideration. To help institutions, DORA released five design principles that can be used to experiment with and improve research assessment practices.

Avasthi outlined the tenure process. A new faculty member starts a lab at time zero. At this point, they have no researchers on board and zero track record of independent data and publications. Start-up funds often expire three years into a new position, so there is a fixed amount of time to obtain grant funding for the lab. For biomedical investigators in the United States, this is typically an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health. But because it can take close to a year from the time a successful grant is submitted to receive the funding, the three-year clock is actually two. The importance of collecting as much data as soon as possible cannot be underestimated, said Avasthi.

With COVID-19, new faculty members are (rightfully so) spending their start-up funding on personnel, even though they are not able to collect new data. With universities experiencing extreme budget shortfalls as a result of the pandemic, junior faculty members are concerned that their start-up funds will not be extended or may disappear earlier than agreed on. All of this would compromise their ability to obtain grant funding.

Productivity is affected in other ways too. Avasthi has heard from colleagues that working from home provides an opportunity to write review articles. But junior faculty members do not get invited to write review articles as frequently as more established investigators. Junior faculty members can write grants. But many of them are also caretakers. Finding time to do the deep work necessary for grant writing is difficult while you are parenting young children or looking after other family members.

Right before tenure there is a big push to publish papers, give seminars at other research institutions, and present results at national and international academic meetings. Without traditional venues for researchers to share their work, promotion and tenure committees will need to take the lack of speaking opportunities into consideration.

Hundley pointed out that international reputation is a major evaluation criterion for the transition from associate to full professor. Travel is a key element of building an international reputation and that cannot happen right now. Some universities have chosen to postpone sabbaticals, even ones that had been approved.

Non-tenure-track faculty members are facing challenges too. For those interested in transitioning to a tenure-track position, it is important to publish as soon as possible, said Hundley. An internal grant enabled her to hire people, build a lab, and publish her research findings. But without institutional support that is nearly impossible. In addition, budget shortfalls at universities are leading to hiring freezes, which leads to a holding pattern for non-tenure-track faculty members.

Hiring freezes are happening across the country, noted Avasthi. While some institutions have postponed faculty searches, others have limited hiring freezes to staff. Hundley added that in some instances the freeze has extended to positions paid from an academic’s funded grant. Freezes like these directly affect postdocs and graduate students looking for their next position. Many protocols and policies are still being developed by universities in reaction to COVID-19, said Hundley. Universities are still actively adapting to the changing landscape we find ourselves in due to the pandemic.

Science is an international endeavor, said Hatch. Everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic. Some nations are starting to reopen, but universities in these countries will not be operating at full capacity. Productivity will still be compromised; institutions will still have reconsider the ways research is assessed for hiring, promotion, and tenure.

For many faculty members it is not about productivity or advancement right now, it’s about survival, Avasthi said. “You want to make sure everyone has a job. You want to be able to keep everyone employed until they are ready to leave.”