Together, our surveys and analyzes reveal two important trends. The first suggests some optimism: The time scientists spend on their research has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels, and most measures based on the publications show only minor declines. On the flip side, our analyzes suggest that even though scientists return to work, they were much less likely to pursue new research projects. This suggests that the impacts of the pandemic on science could be longer lasting than is generally imagined.
These results are important for several reasons. While many studies have focused on scientists who have directed their research towards the pandemic12, it is important to recognize that the majority of scientists have not conducted research related to COVID-19 (Additional Note 9), and it is this majority that seems particularly disturbed. Article submissions and publications appear to be holding up or even increasing8.9. However, the finding that researchers pursued fewer new projects in 2020 suggests that these trends may reflect scientists working on established topics, writing existing research, submitting projects earlier than they otherwise would have.3, write more grant proposals than usual21, or revisiting old data and relaunching legacy projects that they would not have continued otherwise. While the impact of these changes remains uncertain, they suggest that publication trends alone may paint an incomplete picture of the productivity of the research firm.
Although the decline in new research projects coincides with the decline in new co-authors, many other factors may also play a role. Some of the potential mechanisms include reduced access to facilities and field sites, reduced in-person training and mentoring, less funding or support for research unrelated to COVID-19, increased educational demands such as that the redesign of courses, the psychological assessment caused by the pandemic22.23, or the uncertainty as to how the pandemic will unfold in the months and years to come. The homogeneous nature of the decline in starting new projects in all fields, however, suggests that the main reasons for this decline may not be unique to the nature of work in a particular field, but rather are more common to all scientists.
Overall, these findings have important implications for science policy. First, they are consistent with face-to-face interactions and collaborations being an important channel for new ideas14.15.16, reinforcing the value of in-person business resumption. While there may be substantial gains from some aspects of online science (e.g. virtual seminars reducing travel demands and bridging geographic gaps)24, it is still not clear to what extent virtual tools can facilitate important social functions related to the formation of new ideas. Second, these findings can contribute to current policy discussions aimed at encouraging social interactions, facilitating new collaborations.14, or the promotion of new ideas (for example, institutional bridging funds24). Ultimately, however, the success of rebuilding the global research enterprise would also depend on how policymakers and institutional leaders approach and manage the mental health challenges facing scientists.23.
The decline in the pursuit of new projects is particularly pronounced for women or caregivers of young children, which is consistent with related work1,2,5,25,26. Probably in response to these kinds of patterns, many institutional leaders have implemented policies such as tenure extensions.24. As institutions begin their gradual return, it may be tempting for policy makers to evaluate short-term measures to assess research results and inform their subsequent policies. Yet our results suggest that these short-term measures may mask the long-term effects of the pandemic. It is also important to recognize that even with universities reopening, children under the age of twelve remain ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines at the time of writing, which has further implications for scientists with young people. children. Ignoring these long-term consequences can have profound implications not only for the inequality of science, but also for its long-term vitality.27.28.29. At the same time, it also suggests that short-term investments, such as childcare support, can yield long-term benefits.
Our analyzes have several limitations. (1) Our two surveys only cover institutions based in the United States and Europe, which limits the geographic coverage of our analysis. Yet our preliminary analyzes suggest that low-income or developing countries appear to experience a much larger drop in the number of new co-authors of non-COVID-19 research (Supplementary Fig. 13). Given the global disparity in the pandemic11.30, extending our analyzes to other regions would be extremely valuable. (2) Our survey respondents come from self-selected samples and may not be representative of the entire population of scientists. In particular, those who were convinced to share their situation may be more likely to respond. (3) Although the survey results and actual research results show a high degree of consistency (Supplementary Fig. 5), as with any survey, there may be biases in the self-reported metrics. Likewise, measures using post records may be limited by the fact that new co-authorships, especially those on non-COVID-19 topics, may take longer to materialize. (4) The number of new projects is a relatively new measure and may have been interpreted differently by scientists from different backgrounds. As such, further work on the value and reliability of this metric is important and could further enrich our understanding of early stage research. (5) Our surveys do not capture health information, which prevents us from monitoring scientists’ direct or indirect exposure to the virus. (6) The effects discussed in this article are based on correlations, leaving open questions about what exactly may be the main mechanisms causing the decline of new research projects.
Taken together, our results suggest a potentially lasting effect of the pandemic on scientists that has so far received little attention: a decrease in the initiation of new research projects. This dimension of impact appears to be fairly homogeneous across fields and disproportionately affects women scientists and those with young children. It is therefore vital that science funders and institutional leaders pay attention to the long-term effects of the pandemic on the scientific enterprise, even when science may appear to be recovering from its initial disruptions.
Summary of the report
Further information on the research design can be found in the Nature Research Report Summary linked to this article.