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Government moves to lessen Covid-19 blow to academics


Legislation includes extension of contracts, but unions concerned that non-binding help is not enough

The German government has introduced a legislative package aimed at helping PhD students and academics on fixed-term contracts “quickly and unbureaucratically”.

The science ministry said the additional legislation will allow the extension of employment contracts for up to six months at universities and research institutions. This will apply to all scientists who are still in their qualification phase, including PhD students and postdocs, and is meant to reduce the impact the coronavirus crisis has on science.

In addition to this form of support, the ministry wants to create incentives for students to get involved in tackling coronavirus. Any money earned by students active in helping contain the pandemic, including scientific support work and research assistance to companies, will be excluded from being counted towards the German student support grant BAföG.

This means that students can take on such work without having to worry about their grants being cut, the ministry underlined.

However, the German Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW) criticised the initiative as insufficient, albeit pointing in the right direction. The union worried that the government had only given an “option” to extend, leaving it up to institutions whether they would actually do so.

“Whether or not a research assistant receives compensation for disadvantages must not depend on the arbitrariness of the personnel department of the university or research institution,” said union deputy chairman Andreas Keller in a statement.

A planned amendment to BAföG also falls short of the mark, Keller said, adding that there is no extension of the maximum period of support to help students whose studies were delayed, and no corresponding adjustment in the timing of performance assessments. The union also wants to see unbureaucratic emergency aid for students whose jobs are lost as a result of the crisis.

Meanwhile, two prominent German scientific organisations have published recommendation papers on how to proceed with the country’s Covid-19 response. The Helmholtz Society argued in its paper, based on mathematical modelling, for suppression as the only viable strategy to eliminate the virus. To achieve this, existing shutdown measures should be kept in place for three more weeks, the paper said.

But a paper by the Leopoldina academy of science sought to reconcile epidemiological demands within a broader societal context. “The government measures taken at federal, state and municipal level to combat the coronavirus pandemic are leading to massive restrictions and suspensions of fundamental rights to an extent not previously thought possible,” the authors write. “Because of the severity and duration of the restrictions on fundamental rights, it is now necessary to consider alternatives and possible relaxation, without losing sight of the protection objective.”

The paper addressed the responsibility of the research community to analyse the dynamic situation and make recommendations for action. It also said that scientists should get better at communicating the risks around the virus by relating disease progression and death rates to those of other diseases.

Lastly, the Leopoldina called on the government to communicate a realistic timetable of implemented lockdown measures and their lifting.