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COVID-19 pandemic affects STEM scientists' productivity

A scientist working in the laboratory.
Scientists have faced challenges to their productivity during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has impacted productivity in a number of fields, disrupting work and introducing new challenges as people navigate the risks and restrictions of a pandemic.

A team of researchers, led by University of Illinois- Chicago Professor Tim Johnson, has systematically surveyed biologists, biochemists, and engineers at research institutions around the United States to discover how the pandemic has affected STEM researchers. According to the results, challenges of the pandemic for many scientists include an inability to concentrate on research as well as unexpected child- or elder-care responsibilities. The findings also indicate a disproportionate impact on women and early-career scientists.

Molly Womack, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Utah State University, said not having children may shield her from some of the challenges that are facing other female scientists. Nevertheless, Womack said that the social distancing measures and lack of in-person events have inhibited her ability to build a community in her lab.

"I mean, that's the great thing about this job, it's pretty flexible, right? There's, like, lots of things that I can do in isolation in my room to make sure that I am not fired. But I think to, you know, really have a fun, thriving lab space, building a team of thoughtful folks that you like working together with, I think that's really hard," Womack said.

Johnson said the pandemic’s effects on productivity are not unique to STEM researchers.

"There’s a growing body of literature out there now, and gender differences, rank differences in the impacts of COVID on academic life are pretty pervasive. We're focused on STEM, but these impacts are much more broad," Johnson said.

Some of the impacts reported by the survey, such as disruptions due to closures, could extend beyond academia, while challenges impacting workers in other fields may be unexplored in this questionnaire. As the world continues to navigate a viral pandemic, understanding the impacts is key to recovery.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.