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Locked down shouldn’t mean shut out

Pandemic threatens progress on equality and inclusion, say Jakob Feldtfos Christensen and Lachlan Smith

The coronavirus has brought many changes to our personal and professional lives. Working from home has made our worlds feel rather small, and between the virus and climate change it seems like they will remain that way. Faced with social distancing, closed borders, a struggling economy and pressure to reduce our carbon footprint, most of us will probably think twice before doing any travelling. 

But if there is one lesson to draw from the coronavirus crisis so far, it is that the world needs more international collaboration, not less. Universities may not be able to change how governments collaborate (or fail to collaborate), but solving a pandemic is not in the power of a single country, much less an individual university or a research group. 

We have also seen once again that humans are not rational beings but are driven by emotion and culture. People in different countries have reacted differently to government advice and restrictions. We all relate to advice given by researchers in different ways, which somehow still comes as a surprise to the scientific community. 

At the moment, surviving the pandemic and limiting its economic damage are the main goals. But we should not forget that in a crisis it tends to be those minorities already lacking opportunities who lose the most. 

We all have multiple identities, and those from minority groups may be affected very differently by lockdown restrictions than other citizens. Everyone should do as they are told, of course, but we should remember to take our differences into consideration.

It may seem like there’s not enough time or bandwidth right now to consider issues such as racism, opportunities for women in research, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people working in universities, or accessibility for disabled people in academia. But neglecting these issues risks confirming the status quo and existing power relations—and leads to the same mistakes when the next crisis hits.

We need statistics that tell us whether—and which— researchers are sacrificing career opportunities. There are already signs that article submissions from female researchers have declined. Will a single mother of two be able to write that extra article—one that might win a promotion and that her male colleague has the time for?

There is a similar risk that fewer female researchers will apply for and win funding—and the numbers are not always impressive as it is. Funders and institutions should be monitoring how lockdown and social distancing are affecting the gender balance of applicants and grantees. It will be a big loss for universities, and society, if the pandemic ends up strengthening the glass ceiling and reversing progress towards more equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education and research.

Period of reflection

So what exactly can research managers and administrators do about this while sitting at home?

Start by reflecting on your own thoughts and behaviours. If you are part of a minority group, you can examine your own culture. How has this affected your response to the pandemic? 

Consider also the wider public response to restrictions and isolation. What can you learn from that, good and bad? How might that affect your collaborations with minority groups and international colleagues? 

Ask your colleagues from different backgrounds about their experiences, circumstances and needs. We all live in our own little bubbles; right now, that is almost literal. Use this opportunity to learn more about the world around you and the challenges this might impose on people different from you. 

Contact colleagues in other countries. Things look bad from where we’re sitting in Denmark and the UK, but they are clearly worse in other places. 

Let colleagues and friends in countries where things are really bad know you are thinking about them. Help them remember that distancing is only physical and that the world can still be large and interconnected even when we are stuck in our homes. 

Finally, think about how you can use this knowledge in the future. It’s worth saying again: the world is in need of more international collaboration. 

What role can you play in strengthening international collaboration at your university and in its research projects? Do you understand the diversity of your workplace, and can you use what you have learned in these weeks of lockdown? 

Based on what you learn from others, consider what elements we need to follow up on after this: should we look at grants, publications, positions? The way we handle research projects? 

This crisis will not go on forever, but we will not be going back to the world we knew before. It’s our job to work towards making the new normal better for everyone. 

Jakob Feldtfos Christensen is director of the Denmark-based consultancy Diversiunity. Lachlan Smith is director of Cloud Chamber, a research and evaluation consultancy in the UK

This article also appeared in Research Europe