In DepthCOVID-19

Pandemic hits scientist parents hard

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Science  07 Aug 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6504, pp. 609-610
DOI: 10.1126/science.369.6504.609

Science's COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center and the Heising-Simons Foundation


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With working parents and children stuck at home, interruptions are the new normal.

PHOTO: ISTOCK.COM/MOYO STUDIO

When COVID-19 hit the United Kingdom, Michele Veldsman—a postdoc at the University of Oxford—took her 2-year-old daughter out of day care. She and her husband split child care responsibilities so they could each work half days. However, by the time the cognitive neuroscientist responded to urgent emails, she had little time left to dive into the data analyses and writing she'd hoped to make progress on. Nor did she have time for things such as virtual conferences, journal clubs, or collaborations. “I really need to be going to the stage of independence,” says Veldsman, who hopes to land a faculty position. “Collaborations … show that independence, which I don't have time to do now.”

For months, stories such as Veldsman's have flooded social media. “All it takes is 5 minutes on Twitter to see how much people are struggling right now,” says Michelle Cardel, an assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine. Parents in all professions are under strain as the pandemic keeps children home from day care or school. But scientists who have young children often face maximum professional pressure at the same time, as they apply for jobs and bid for tenure. And data quantifying the scale of their struggles are starting to emerge.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, scientists who had children 5 years of age or younger reported working 38% fewer research hours than normal, and those with children between ages 6 and 11 worked 32% fewer hours. That's compared with a 16% drop for all other scientists, according to a survey of about 4500 U.S. and European principal investigators published last month in Nature Human Behaviour. A survey of about 3300 Brazilian academics, posted as a preprint last month on bioRxiv, found that parents—especially mothers of young children—struggled to submit manuscripts as planned. A study that Cardel co-authored on U.S. faculty members, now in review, found similar results, she says.

“It's just been a constant juggling act,” says Larry Snyder, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Lehigh University and the father of 8- and 12-year-old girls. In May, he and his wife—an English professor at Lehigh—found that their children needed assistance 15 times per hour. Interruptions take “your attention away, and it takes a while to get your attention back,” Snyder says. (While speaking with Science, one of his daughters interrupted to ask to use his iPad for her math exercises. “I didn't stage that,” he joked.)

Many academics are pushing for policies that will ease the burden. At Stanford University, postdocs and faculty members sent letters to administrators in June asking that campus day care centers be reopened as soon as possible. In July, the group 500 Women Scientists released a policy statement for supervisors and administrators, recommending flexible deadlines, contract extensions, and other workplace adjustments.

Some institutions have given all junior faculty tenure clock extensions. But it's not clear whether such policies will ultimately benefit parents, says Dashun Wang, director of the Center for Science of Science and Innovation at Northwestern University and a co-author of the Nature Human Behaviour study. Gender neutral policies that extend tenure clocks after the birth of a child are a cautionary tale, he says. Research indicates that such policies “actually ended up exacerbating [gender] differences” in tenure rates because men took advantage of the extra time to publish more.

Scientists at different career stages and in different disciplines may require different forms of support, notes Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities. “What I would hope is that universities would really sit down and have serious discussions with those who are affected and try to jointly come up with some solutions.”

She adds that university administrators are in a difficult position. “The financial consequences [of COVID-19] are devastating,” says Coleman, who is a former university president. “A lot of the issues that people are talking about are ones that require money to make happen, and that's going to be in short supply—so it's going to be very tough.”

Universities may want to consider redistributing teaching loads away from professors who have small children, says Fernanda Staniscuaski, an associate professor of molecular biology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and lead author of the study on Brazilian academics. “It doesn't sound fair … because it's my choice to have children,” she told Science while breastfeeding her third child. “But maybe [it can] be voluntary.”

Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez—an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Davis—says that's precisely what's been happening at her university. She isn't able to help junior colleagues because she's barely surviving herself with 4- and 8-year-old children at home. “I feel exhausted,” she says. “By the end of the day I feel more behind in my work than when I started.” But some senior faculty members have volunteered to take on extra classes. “I hope I see more of [that] across the country and the globe.”

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