Assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the Indian STEM community – Part 2

Vedika Inamdar, Shivani Chunekar & Deepa Subramanyam

To examine how COVID-19 affected STEM scientists and stakeholders across India, Monk Prayogshala conducted a survey, which was funded by the DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance. In Part 2 of the article series, Vedika Inamdar and Shivani Chunekar, researchers at the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai, and Deepa Subramanyam, Scientist E at the National Centre for Cell Science, Pune, elaborate on the study methodology adopted and outcomes.

Source: Pixabay
Source: Pixabay 

The research study employed a mixed-method design, using both quantitative (survey) and qualitative (interview) methods to collect data from early career researchers (ECRs), Heads of Institute (HoIs), suppliers of scientific equipment, and funding agencies. The participants for the interview were recruited via emails, networks of India Alliance, and snowball sampling using social media campaigns. A total of 24 interviews were conducted virtually. The final research study includes qualitative interviews conducted with eight HoIs, three funding agencies, and four suppliers of scientific equipment. Apart from this, the interviewers also spoke to four organizations (India Bioscience, C‑Camp, InStem, and CloudKrate) that are important stakeholders in the Indian STEM community. Among the ECRs who participated in the survey, five agreed to provide insight on their motivations for leaving or planning to leave academia. 

Early career researchers

The ability of researchers to continue their research during the pandemic was compromised due to attending multiple conferences and online workshops, and the subsequent lack of time for professional development. The decrease in attention spans and methodological challenges in their research; a lack of motivation and uncertainty; the loss of time due to lockdown-associated restrictions on movement, leading to lack of access to laboratories; and the decline in scientific output contributed to the strain in scientific productivity. In addition, family and household responsibilities, fear of losing their jobs, career-related stresses, delays in funding, fear for their health and their family’s well-being negatively impacted the mental health of researchers.

Leaving academia

The ECRs reported that the major reasons for leaving academia were reduced funding/​money, retirement, increased work pressure and workload, child-care responsibility, lack of stability/​security and not being able to do desired work. Some of these participants also expressed how teaching online in addition to administrative responsibilities and a feeling of being overworked contributed to their frustration with academia and negatively impacted their health as well. The increasing pressure of having to publish invariably emphasises the number of papers published rather than the quality of those papers. 

Additionally, the ECRs who were thinking about leaving academia mentioned poor work culture and lack of support as reasons for their discontent with academia. Many women researchers made the decision to leave academia because of lack of stability and support by institutions that do not take into account the gendered division of labour in households, which was exacerbated during the pandemic. The increasing number of job opportunities with better pay in industry seemed like a better option over academia.

Heads of Institutes

Two hundred and fifty eight targeted emails were sent out to Heads of Institutes across the country, from which eight (seven men and one woman) agreed to be interviewed. These HoIs led Government-run and not-for-profit research institutions across the country, and most were based at teaching and research institutes. The HoIs echoed the findings from the ECR survey on major issues faced by scientists during the pandemic: lack of access to their research material and laboratories, delaying research.

For the HoIs, the prime challenges were in managing personnel remotely and then, on campus once restrictions were lifted. Scenario planning due to the uncertainty of the pandemic was the foremost challenge and a new responsibility that they had to take on. The regulation of administrative, supervisory, teaching, research, and personnel management tasks were impacted due to the virtual mode of work; the time allotted for each also changed for the HoIs. During the pandemic and lockdown period, their main role was providing research-based support to scientists, ensuring extension of grants, procuring additional sources of funding and making sure that current funding timelines were maintained. The mental health of staff and scientists within their institute and their own mental health were a challenge, even though some institutes provided counselling support. 

Funding agencies

Of the 22 funding agencies approached to participate in the study, only three agreed to be a part of it. These three agencies fund research in India in the range of US$ 14 million, 108 million, and 344 million respectively (the last figure also includes global grants funded). Each agency operates at a different scale, thematic funding area, and in varying geographical contexts.

The current research by the organizations that the three agencies supported was either paused or COVID-19 related research took priority. The organizations were unable to utilize the funds set aside for field work/lab-based work due to lockdown restrictions, but other forms of virtual research took place. The committees and boards had to be consulted by the funders on the new challenges in funding timelines as presented by the changing nature of the pandemic; the research goals linked to funding were adapted according to the pandemic. In terms of deadline extensions, the funders provided cost and no-cost extensions, and eased the timelines for deliverables required during the funding period. They also supported virtual means of research dissemination including workshops, webinars, conferences and research podcasts for their scientists. This included virtual meetings with the supported organizations and regular newsletters on research findings. 

Suppliers of scientific equipment

Forty suppliers of scientific equipment were approached to participate in the study, out of which only four agreed. The four suppliers conducted business in products such as high-end imaging lenses, equipment for clinical diagnostics, nuclear research supplies, and telescopes. Each supplier operated at a different scale, dealt with different products, and in varying geographical contexts.

They reported a delay in supply of material and equipment owing to lockdown-related restrictions on travel within the country and across national borders. The Government mandates on manufacture and supply of material that favour domestic production, especially during the pandemic, negatively-impacted suppliers due to increase in the permissions to be sought and bureaucratic procedures. The payments for transportation and delivery of scientific material and equipment were delayed since research institutes were closed during the lockdown. There were no changes in the type of primary market or target group during the pandemic, and the suppliers moved to virtual means of business through their website and online portals for transactions. However, management via a virtual medium was not easy as equipment needed to be tested by scientists/​physical demonstration had to be done before purchase of an equipment.

The study provides several recommendations for different stakeholders within the STEM community in India in the wake of the pandemic. One of these is that universities and research institutes should minimize grant management and other administrative duties for scientists as it reduces their time spent on research. Furthermore, ECRs suggested that flexible working hours should be adopted by institutes for researchers to work independently especially during a pandemic when remote working arrangements are the norm. Developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) across domains of teaching and research is vital to alleviate any future losses in academia (in terms of human resources, for example).