By Dr Merryn McKinnon, ANU Senior Lecturer for the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed cracks in many areas of our society, but at the same time it offers the opportunity for a fundamental rethink of what we consider normal. One of these areas is academia.
The pandemic seems to be a fruitful time for research, with some academic journals reporting that article submissions are up by as much as 25%. But a closer look reveals that most of these submissions are coming from men, with work by women becoming less common.
Given the global challenges we face beyond coronavirus, academic institutions are vital to our future. Australian research and innovation will survive; it has thrived post-crisis before.
But it did this in spite of the inequities that existed, which continue to exclude some academics from contributing their full potential today. While it’s understandable that we want to return to normal, we should aspire to a better normal.
The ‘good’ old days
Academia is not an even playing field. There are systemic inequalities that exist and persist in the academic workforce. Some are overt, like under-representation of women at senior leadership levels. Others draw on unseen social capital and ideas of “prestige” to provide a cumulative advantage to the select few.
Yet despite some efforts within the sector to create greater equity, progress has been slow. For some academics, these inequities have created chasms between opportunity and progress.
Academic merit is determined largely by publication output and grants. A potential silver lining of isolation for some academics may be the opportunity to focus on their research or finally get that paper written. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed magazine suggests this is the case, with editors of some journals reporting a 25% increase on submissions from the same time last year.
However the editors also note women are absent from this productivity push. Within academia, women – and all those with caring responsibilities – are at a disadvantage, even when schools and day care are open.
Isaac Newton, who self-isolated for two years during the Great Plague of the 1660s, was a commonly tweeted example of what could be achieved during isolation. It is probably fair to assume Newton was able to develop calculus and theories on optics because he wasn’t trying to look after kids and someone else was doing the cooking and cleaning.
Caring responsibilities and academia are largely incompatible, yet academics are evaluated and compared using the same metrics irrespective of their non-work commitments.
Flexible work arrangements are one means of trying to create equity, to help those with caring responsibilities to better balance their professional and private lives. But, before COVID, flexible working was not yet ‘mainstream’ – for either individuals or organisations.
One thing COVID-19 stay at home restrictions immediately showed is that, when the nature of the work allowed, flexible working arrangements became mainstream very quickly. The tertiary sector was well positioned to make this transition with just over 80% of these organisations reporting they had flexible working arrangement policies and strategies before COVID.
However flexible working conditions can only go so far, and academia is not a typical 9-to-5 job. In comparison to academics in other countries, Australian university academics have higher levels of work-related stress and burnout due to workload demands.
Within some institutions there is the expectation that saying no and protecting “family time” could be detrimental to career progression. This is no doubt worse for casual and non-tenured academic staff without job security.
These academics also need to generate their own publications and grant applications to demonstrate their merit. They do this often with high teaching loads, inadequate professional development and career support or, unfortunately now for some, without any means of income.
COVID restrictions have highlighted that despite attempts to create equity, the basic structures of academia still put an unequal burden onto some. Perhaps this signals an opportunity for academia to reconsider how it measures merit, and the ways in which those measures are pursued.
The maxim of “publish or perish” has created a competitive, often unkind, research culture. Last year, the Wellcome Trust in the UK launched a campaign to “reimagine research” which director Jeremy Farrar states is driven by the realisation that “the relentless drive for research excellence has created a culture … that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved”.
There are signs that COVID-19 could help to change this. The worldwide search for a solution has changed the way research is “done”. This includes increased collaborations which are needed to produce the best possible knowledge which can help manage COVID and the broader, equally urgent, challenges facing the world.
Rapid sharing of information – which has definite pros and cons – and journals removing paywalls has created easy access to COVID-related information for everyone. This represents an opportunity to transform science and offer an open research system where information is readily accessible to researchers and society.
To generate the best information, academia needs to attract and retain the best people. This means not using measures of merit that ultimately punish academics who have responsibilities outside work, or those who may not have the social capital to open otherwise obscured doors. This means having a work environment that meaningfully supports those attempting to establish themselves as researchers while juggling multiple casual roles to keep a roof over their heads.
It was Newton who said “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. If academia can build a system that lifts everyone up equally, who knows how far we could see?