Lockdown has reduced capacity to conduct research – Vitae survey

On average, researchers spent 40% less time on research than before lockdown

UK researchers on average spend less time on research because of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, a survey of more than 8,000 people working in universities and research institutes suggests.

The survey by Vitae, undertaken on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and supported by UKRI and Universities UK, gathered the views of 8,416 researchers, 88% of whom were primarily employed in a higher education institution (HEI). Around 60% were employed in a Russell Group institution and around a half (46%) were responsible for a team.

The survey’s results indicate more polarised experiences for junior and senior researchers. About 40% of respondents, especially early career researchers, reported a decrease in their average weekly working hours while 21%, especially senior researchers, reported an increase. Of those reporting a decrease, around a half (19% of the total survey sample) reported a decrease of more than 10 hours.

Those working median average hours – between 41 and 50 hours a week – have decreased from 37% of respondents to 21%, while those working over 60 hours a week have increased from 7% to 12% of respondents since the beginning of lockdown.

According to the survey, there was a 96% reduction in the time researchers spent on research activities that cannot be done from their home (like laboratory and archive work). Researchers spent less time on academic networking and dissemination activities (44%) and commercialisation and collaboration activities (37%). Eight in 10 respondents have experienced more flexible working patterns.

Researchers spent on average 0.6 hours extra teaching (12% to 15%) and 1.2 extra hours a week on desk-based activities. The biggest change in work activities, however, was a 45% increase in activities marked ‘other’ – which includes training, professional development and meetings. Senior researchers were most likely to spend more time on management, teaching and administrative activities.

The survey suggests a significant minority of researchers are concerned about the long-term impact of lockdown on their sector and employment. If six months of social distancing was required, research group leaders estimated that without costed extensions to research funding, 25% of their team could have their employment ended, and 8% could be furloughed. Seven in 10 (70%) anticipated less capacity for research due to caring responsibilities.

The majority of researchers had experienced a delay in their research and publications, and more than seven in 10 had observed fewer future funding opportunities. Researchers on fixed term contracts are more concerned that their job is under threat (65% are concerned to some extent or more).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, over a half have explored new research directions since lockdown, with three in 10 now working on Covid-19 related activities, rising to six in 10 for medical researchers.

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