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Women and young scientists ‘most at risk from research cuts’

Pandemic could lead to 7,000 job losses in research, federal report predicts

Australia’s universities could lose up to 7,000 research jobs over the next six months as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, with women and early-career researchers likely to take the brunt of these cuts, a report commissioned by the federal government has said.

It also estimates that more than 9,000 international research students will not resume their research in 2020 because of travel restrictions and disruptions to research programmes.

The Rapid Research Information Forum report is one of a series commissioned by the Department of Education. It was compiled by a group of 35 research organisations, chaired by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel and peer reviewed by leading scientists and higher education policy analysts.

Copies have been sent to the federal government’s national Covid-19 coordination commission and to relevant cabinet ministers, including education minister Dan Tehan.

The national Covid-19 coordination commission asked the group to respond to the following question: What impact is the pandemic having and likely to have on Australia’s research workforce and its capability to support our recovery efforts?

The report warns that academic, industry and government research will be negatively impacted by the economic aftershocks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Job losses will unfold over the next six months and longer as the true impacts of the reduction in international fee revenue, industry co-investment and the labour force affect Australian companies, universities and scientific agencies,” the report says.

“Much of Australia’s research workforce has placed its existing research on hold to answer the call for Covid-19 research, both in the laboratory and clinic.”

Social distancing and travel restrictions are also hindering research, denying access to laboratories, major research facilities and archives.

“In addition to this, clinical trials and population health studies have been affected by the new demands on clinical resources and interrupted access to patients and population cohorts. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some organisations already have insufficient international PhD students to conduct research, and some commercial partners are withdrawing their contributions to cut costs.”

The report says that because of the “highly casualised and fixed-term nature of the university research workforce”, job losses will be “disproportionately felt by junior researchers including recent graduates, early-career and mid-career researchers, and women”.

“Journals are already observing that since the Covid-19 crisis began, submissions from women are underrepresented and articles authored solely by women are particularly affected,” it says.

“As a result of the reduction in international fee revenue, research staff are likely to become less available to cooperative research centres, impairing the ability of CRCs to attract and retain industry and university partners to a program that has had a long-running positive impact on commercialising research.”

The report was peer reviewed by leading higher education academics, including policy analyst Andrew Norton from the Australian National University in Canberra and Peter Coaldrake, who recently led a federal review of Australia’s higher education provider standards.