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‘I’d rather jump before I get pushed’


Funding uncertainties brought on by the pandemic are demoralising young South African scientists

Covid-19 has thrown up fresh obstacles for early-career researchers in South Africa who often need to supply annual progress reports to keep the funding flowing. 

Usually, those reports need to highlight papers published or conferences attended. But with the pandemic, these milestones have been difficult to achieve, says Katlego Sojane, an HIV researcher based in KwaZulu-Natal who studies how the virus enters cells. 

Sojane recently submitted the annual progress report for his three-year grant from the National Research Foundation—a prerequisite for releasing funding in 2021. The report asked for things like publications and conference attendances.

But Sojane has little to show for this year as the pandemic got in the way of both international travel and lab-based research. One of his two masters student decided to leave his project. “[The student] had an offer to work for the National Health Lab Services, and didn’t feel that it was going to be profitable to lose a year of study working from home,” he says.

Sojane now faces the additional burden of finding another student, and getting the research going again, while simultaneously worrying about his funding for next year. It’s a strain, he says. “Being in a situation where you are not publishing demoralises you and makes you lose your self worth.” He’s even stepped up his search for jobs outside academia. “I’d rather jump before I get pushed.” 

Sojane is not alone. The global pandemic has hit both early and mid-career young scientists in South Africa hard, says Marizvikuru Mwale, a rural development scholar at the University of Venda.

Mwale, who sits on the executive committee of the South African Young Academy of Science, says most young scientists have been unable to attend conferences, exchange visits and workshops meant for their professional development. Although online training opportunities have been offered instead, she said, these “did not have the same effect” or came too late, after the young scientists had lost their funding. 

Mwale says young scientists need special attention to “regain the momentum” in their research careers. Many young scientists have also had to juggle work stress with increased family responsibilities. “It could be that most [have] suffered fatigue and psychological effects,” she says.

For his part, Sojane wishes the NRF had taken a much stronger lead in allaying the fears of young grantees. But Sojane says he and his colleagues asked both the NRF directly, as well as the university’s NRF funding office, how the funder would regard non-productivity due to the pandemic—but got no response. “We didn’t get anything,” he says. 

This was unfortunate, he says. “What was really important for the NRF to do early on was to send out a message to all of the people that they fund, to tell them: Hey, we appreciate this is a situation where you can’t get into the lab, you can’t access campus, your students can’t do your work. We really appreciate how unproductive you are going to be, and here are some of the things we can do.” 

In a statement sent to Research Professional News, the NRF said it would take Covid-19 effects into account when assessing progress reports. 

"The national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had different impacts on research productivity across the system. Some researchers and students have experienced greater productivity utilising the time for data analysis and drafting of research proposals and publications. Researchers that were reliant on access to research sites and infrastructures and those that were unable to purchase research materials may have been less productive," it said.

"Under these circumstances, individuals will have the opportunity to indicate in their progress reports the challenges faced and the impact on their productivity and will not be unduly disadvantaged for continued funding," the NRF added.

An earlier version of this article said Sojane had only one masters student. This has been corrected.