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Image: Karlis Dambrans [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

We should avoid a return to normal, says Adam Golberg

As a columnist for Funding Insight, I mostly proffer advice on grantsmanship or funding strategy. But this deep into the Covid-19 pandemic, I feel like writing about such things would be to ignore a big grey pachyderm with large ears plonked in front of me. 

Unlike on matters of research funding, I can claim no expertise here. I know no more than you do about how best to cope with or understand the situation, and quite possibly substantially less. Still, I want to take stock of where we’re at, without succumbing to the twin temptations of false hope of some new dawn or the consolations of cynicism. Also, to give you the one piece of advice I think is worth passing on. 

Kindness is everything 

We’ve got to be kinder to ourselves, as well as to others. I’ve been carrying a bit of residual guilt around because it feels like very little of the burden of the crisis has fallen on my shoulders. I’ve been able to continue working in physical safety and—in spite of some testing days and weeks—with a manageable workload that doesn’t pose a serious risk to my mental wellbeing. As I don’t have children, I’ve not had to face the pressures of homeschooling. 

It’s good to be aware that others have it tougher, to be willing to help and to show kindness, empathy and consideration. To have a sense of proportion. But it’s a mistake to minimise or even discount the things that we’re finding difficult. The fact that other people are in much more pain than I am doesn’t mean it hurts any less when I stub my toe. 

It’s easy to focus on those from whom extraordinary efforts are required during these extraordinary times, to compare ourselves with that standard and judge ourselves harshly. But if you’re anything like me, by this stage you’ve probably normalised a lot of the restrictions that all of us are asked to live under. Not seeing family and friends, severely curtailed leisure activities, having to adapt to remote working and so on. It’s all so [makes screaming sound] and this is the new normal. 

We should not forget that we’re all contributing. If you’re following whatever the guidelines are
today, you’re contributing. 

Won’t get fooled again 

Kindness—for others, for ourselves—should be the order of the day, but what is stopping it becoming the order of the everyday? 

There’s a temptation to think that things must be different—will have to be better—after this crisis. We should be aware that powerful forces will want to put things back more or less where they were before it ever happened (see the last financial crisis) or in even crueller positions (ibid).  

If we want to ‘build back better’ (sorry) in academia, we need to think creatively, we need to share ideas, we need to prepare the ground for radical ideas. For one thing, we must confront our structural inequalities. Yes, this is another white, middle-age, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender man telling everyone what he thinks about equality issues. I understand the scepticism. But in my defence, there’s only one thing worse than all that: someone who is all those things and yet doesn’t think about equality issues. 

Over the summer I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast on ‘playing favourites’, which included an interview with Mahzarin Banaji. The eminent psychologist recalled agreeing to an interview she would usually decline just because the journalist had attended the same university as her at the same time. As the warm glow from having helped someone faded, Banaji realised her decision’s darker side. In her words: “I think that kind of act of helping towards people with whom we have some shared group identity is really the modern way in which discrimination likely happens.” 

Which leaves me to ask: who gets my standard service and who gets my above-and-beyond, my extra mile? Who gets one last extra read of their proposal? Who gets a meeting rather than an email? This year, my challenge to myself is: a) to keep an eye on who I want to do favours for; and b) to look to do more favours for members of disadvantaged or unrepresented groups who may not have had their share of favours in the past. I invite you to join me. My preliminary conclusion is that I tend to privilege the pushy because I’m a people pleaser. I should do better. 

My one piece of advice 

I’ve only got one bit of real advice for you. It has got nothing to do with research or academia, you’ll have heard it before and it is, I am sorry, only relevant to those lucky enough not to be shielding. It is this: go for a walk. Listen to nature or the streetscape, or put in your headphones and stride purposefully like you’re five minutes late for a meeting on the other side of campus. 

You may or may not feel better afterwards. But at least you’ll have been for a walk.

Adam Golberg is research development manager (charities) at the University of Nottingham

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com