‘Pandemic primarily affects postdocs’

Opinion | by guest writers

May 3, 2022 † Corona measures have disproportionately disadvantaged researchers with a temporary contract and care responsibilities. According to those involved, the Dutch government is failing, writes Eva Boon.

‘Pandemic primarily affects postdocs’
Postdocs in particular have been affected by the corona measures, writes Eva Boon. Photo: UMC Utrecht.

The pandemic forced me to my knees. As a (post-doc) researcher and single parent with three young children, one of whom has a severe disability, the last two years have been a war of attrition. According to my university’s personnel department, sick leave would only give me problems because ‘my contract could not be renewed anyway’. Out of frustration, I went to investigate the matter.

Researchers with temporary contracts and extra care tasks have suffered the most during the corona measures. This is stated in the questionnaire that Belle Derks (Utrecht University) and Thijs Bol (University of Amsterdam) sent out to Dutch researchers on behalf of the National Network of Female Professors (LNVH) and De Jonge Akademie (DJA) in early 2020. . . These are mainly beginners: PhD students, postdoc researchers (‘postdocs’) and scientists on probation of their permanent employment (the so-called ‘postdocs’).tenure track† It was striking that women with young children were in more vulnerable positions (earlier in their careers, more temporary positions) than their male counterparts with young children.

This was no surprise

The results of the study were no surprise to Meaghan Polack of Promovendi Netwerk Nederland (PNN). “I just nodded to Bol’s presentation,” she says. PNN sent out similar questions among its members and got the same results. “That’s why the Dutch government made money available through the NPO (National Education Program) to compensate for delays caused by the Covid pandemic; part is available for contract extensions,” Polack said.

According to Polack, PhD students are not even the hardest hit. “Postdocs are even more of a burden,” she says. Martijn Verwegen from the umbrella organization Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) explains how this can be done. “PhD students can relatively easily get extended. Bee tenure trackpositions, you can adjust the assessment criteria, for example, according to the new recognition and valuation program that has been used by universities, university hospitals, and other lenders. A postdoc is between these two jobs, and it is precisely here that the agreement does not allow for extension. ”

Such an extension is complicated in Dutch law. After three years, temps must have a permanent contract, while most research projects for which postdocs are hired last three to five years. In order to circumvent this labor law problem, the agreement stipulates that postdocs can be employed for a maximum of four years without the possibility of extension. Only the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) may assess a major deviation from the rules.

Make sure postdocs are the exception

The solution seems clear: Help postdocs with a temporary exception within the agreement and thus extend their contract. The money is there from the NPO; it just requires an adjustment of the rules. That is exactly what the UNL called for in a letter to the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) and SZW two years ago. This letter was signed by all bodies in the Netherlands that have a say in science – both from employers and workers. Martijn Verwegen had never seen such a degree of approval before. “Everyone agreed that something had to be done for this group.”

According to insiders, there was actually support from the OCW for an exception. Among other things, consultations were held with various ministries, while the theme was also put on the agenda in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, none of the signatories of the interviewed fire letter (PNN, PostdocNL, De Jonge Akademie and UNL) received responses from the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science or SCW. These ministries also did not answer substantive questions.

Only in the Netherlands

Are the same problems abroad? Researchers everywhere start with a temporary contract. However, the policy for vulnerable groups in science differs from country to country. In the British magazine Nature Scientists were in favor of a wide range of measures and, above all, a generous policy of contract renewals. The European Research Council (ERC) even explicitly encourages researchers to mention delays caused by the pandemic in contract renewal applications. The Netherlands is the only country where civil law makes these enlargements impossible.

Derks and Bol’s research comes with comprehensive recommendations to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and the measures taken for it. Asked whether the recommendations of this research would be adopted, the NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research) stated that ‘a number of measures’ had already been taken; in 2020, the deadlines were moved or postponed. According to the NWO, this was not necessary in 2021.

It is unclear whether certain groups of scientists have actually been able to submit fewer grant applications due to the corona measures. When asked, the NWO states “no statements” about possible differences that may have arisen, “simply because we do not have the necessary data for this”. Bol agrees that while women have been able to publish significantly less during the pandemic, we have “only anecdotal evidence” of the pandemic’s impact on the level of scholarship applications. “The honest answer is that we do not know. Some got more time to apply, and yet there are more PhD students and postdocs who can also apply for more scholarships. It obscures the effect.”

Polack from PNN says she has received clear signals from her supporters about declining productivity among female members with children. Padmini Khedoe from PostdocNL also says that members with nursing responsibilities seem to be dropping out faster. For example, there have been many reports from female postdocs who, due to childbirth and the corona measures, suddenly had far too little time to complete a project within the contract period. They were also not offered a solution.

This will continue in the future

The Postdocs, the ‘temporary academic staff’ that make up the talent pool from which the new Robbert Dijkgraaf and Marion Koopmans are to emerge, appear to be most affected by the pandemic. However, the personal relationships of postdocs are very different. While they may have been able to continue working well without care assignments, with care assignments they have suffered a two-year gap in their resume due to lockdowns, loss of child care and work from home, while also lacking the prospect of extension.

Bol emphasizes the importance of this difference for science as a whole. ‘There is already a huge arbitrariness in scientific competitions. Of a thousand applications, at least two hundred and fifty are of top quality, and there is money for only a hundred applications – they are lucky. The effect of that ‘luck’ is enormous: successful applicants have much better career opportunities, despite the very small difference in quality. The rest often stop their scientific careers because they no longer have the time, resources or motivation to continue. ”

Why is this important? Less diversity among successful postdocs now means less diversity in the list of candidates for the professorship in ten years. In addition, to mention it explicitly: ‘The substitutes with care tasks’ are still predominantly female. Without a contract extension, they can write their scientific ambitions on their stomachs.

Eva Boon is a postdoc at the Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences and a researcher in biological and cultural evolution.

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