The pandemic is hitting scientist parents hard, and some solutions may backfire

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When COVID-19 hit the United Kingdom in March, 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 she responded to urgent emails and questions from students in her lab, she had little time left to dive into the data analyses and writing she’d hoped to make progress on. “A lot of the scientific work I’m doing really needs sustained time to be able to focus,” she says—time that was sorely missing.

Veldsman, a cognitive neuroscientist, also saw lost opportunities for career development. Many of her colleagues participated in virtual conferences, training courses, and journal clubs, but she didn’t have time for anything that didn’t have an immediate deadline. She also postponed collaborations that could bolster her career—she’s currently 2 years into a third postdoc, hoping to land a faculty position. “I really need to be going to the stage of independence,” she says. “Collaborations … show that independence, which I don’t have time to do now.”

For months, stories such as Veldman’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 of nutritional science at the University of Florida. But until recently, the reports from scientist parents had been largely anecdotal, she adds.

Now data are starting to emerge quantifying the scale of the struggle. All else being equal, parents who had children 5 years of age or younger suffered a 17% larger decline in research hours than those who did not, according to a study of about 4500 U.S. and European principal investigators surveyed this spring, published this month in Nature Human Behavior. And a survey of about 3300 Brazilian academics conducted in April and May found that parents—especially mothers of young children—were less able to submit manuscripts as planned, as reported in a preprint posted to bioRxiv this month.

The findings are consistent with a study that Cardel co-authored on U.S. faculty members, which is currently in review, she says. “It was the people with 0- to 5-year-olds who had much lower reported hours and a lot less productivity.”

The hit to parents isn’t surprising, but the data strengthen the case for why scientist parents need extra support right now, says Jessica Metcalf, an associate professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and a member of the advisory board for the group 500 Women Scientists. “I have colleagues who … are waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning so that they can have time to work before the kids wake up,” 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—were so frustrated with the difficulty of getting work done that they decided to conduct an “experiment,” tracking interruptions by their daughters over 3 hours. They found that their children needed assistance 15 times per hour. The data “really did help explain why we felt like, if you added it up, we had enough time to work, but at the same time it just felt really impossible,” he says. Interruptions take “your attention away, and it takes a while to get your attention back.” (While speaking with Science Careers, one of Snyder’s daughters interrupted to ask for his iPad so she could do her math exercises. “I didn’t stage that,” he joked.)

Given these challenges, many academics are pushing for policies that will ease the burden on parents. At Stanford University, postdocs and faculty members sent letters to administrators last month, asking that campus day care centers be reopened as soon as possible. Earlier this month, 500 Women Scientists released a policy statement for supervisors and administrators, recommending flexible deadlines, contract extensions, and other workplace adjustments that could help parents.

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, the director of the Center for Science of Science and Innovation at Northwestern University and a coauthor of the Nature Human Behavior study. He pointed to a 2018 study that looked at the impact of gender neutral policies that extended tenure clocks after the birth of a child. “That kind of policy actually ended up exacerbating [gender] differences,” he says—men published more after the policy went into effect and their tenure rates went up; tenure rates for women, however, went down. “I wonder if that’s the case here,” he says. Parents may ultimately be disadvantaged “if we extend some benefits to every scientist without considering their hidden household realities.”

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution to the challenges parents face, says Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the Association of American Universities. For example, graduate students and faculty may require different forms of support, and approaches may vary by discipline. “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.”

Looking ahead, early career researchers are especially nervous. “My biggest concern is the long-term impact,” Veldman says. She’d like institutions and funding agencies to make clear how they are going to account for disparate impacts on scientists during the pandemic. “I can’t give as many talks, I can’t participate in conferences, I can’t do [trainings], I’ve had to shut down collaborations,” she says. “How am I supposed to account for this on my CV?”

Universities may also 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 the lead author of the study on Brazilian academics. “It doesn’t sound fair … because it’s my choice to have children,” she told Science Careers while breastfeeding her third child. “But maybe for those that can take some more credits right now, it may be voluntary.”

A voluntary system may sound far-fetched, but Rebecca Calisi—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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