Thinking Outside the Lab
The pandemic’s challenges present an opportunity for research institutions to adopt a new vision of remote and hybrid work that could pay dividends for workers, science, and society.
Throughout history, pandemics have proven both disasters and opportunities, particularly in their role in reshaping labor markets. In 1918, a disproportionate number of influenza deaths were comprised of working-age men, with their mortality rates surpassing that of women by 35%. This W-shaped mortality curve led to a substantial worker shortage, creating opportunities for women to gain employment in manufacturing and garment facilities and telephone operations, and expanding the role of women in medical professions. This pandemic-driven labor shift was a critical step in advancing women’s entry into the workforce.
COVID-19 has followed some patterns of previous pandemics. Still, instead of opportunity, the changes it has brought so far threaten decades of progress toward gender parity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research. Female faculty have typically shouldered greater caregiving duties as the pandemic has widened long-standing gender gaps at universities. Two years of intermittent daycare and school closures have required parents who work in higher education to take on childcare duties on short notice. Such responsibilities have led many women to reduce working hours to accommodate caregiving demands. Many have considered giving up their university roles altogether. As a result, COVID-19 has left research institutions reeling as they try to fill vacancies, maintain staff morale, and produce good work while meeting the needs of students.
But the challenges of the pandemic have also pressed research institutions to adopt remote work and collaboration technologies, rewriting vocational traditions in a matter of days and weeks. The pandemic now presents an opportunity for organizations to adopt an entirely new vision of work that could pay significant dividends for both science and society at large. In a utopian scenario, these institutions can develop flexible work patterns to enhance the quality of life of their workers. They can use this opportunity to restructure laboratory space and lab sharing, reinvigorate STEM research, and accomplish societal goals—enabling a more diverse workforce, improving work-life balance, and potentially reducing carbon emissions.
In contrast, the brute-force return to normal, which many organizations are currently trying to pull off, represents a dystopian scenario. Although universities and research institutions understandably fear losing productivity and a financial model predicated on students paying full tuition for an in-person educational experience, insisting on a return to the prepandemic system without mindful restructuring could lead to a dissatisfied and disengaged STEM workforce. This would further exclude long-underrepresented workers, particularly women, who endure the most of caregiving. A patchwork of policies aimed at forcing researchers back to in-person work is likely to exacerbate social disparities and existing inefficiencies, which include the dependence of STEM research on costly investments in real estate and lab space, not to mention sought-after parking spaces.
This grim scenario is already occurring in many ways, as a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report points out. Women scholars in STEM have seen their publication and collaboration records fall since the pandemic began. Related performance measures, vital for survival in academia, could hurt job stability and the demographic of academic scholarship. The situation is further aggravated in contract, adjunct, and non-tenure-track positions where COVID-related accommodations made for tenure-track faculty simply do not apply. International graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the United States, especially those with dependents, face a similar range of issues.
Rather than sliding inevitably towards this dystopian scenario, research institutions should take the lead in harnessing the gains of a hybrid world while showing necessary consideration to the human factors of the STEM enterprise. The pandemic’s spotlight on gender-based issues is an opportunity for universities to support reforms that female faculty have long championed. If the future of work and its related policies are shifted with coordinated and considerate attention toward equity, university leadership can use this moment to reframe STEM research employment to better support women and prevent their mass resignation from STEM research. In addition to short-term and gender-neutral policies such as extending the “tenure clock” and expunging student evaluations during the pandemic, universities should address the long-standing plea to waive nonessential service and provide teaching relief to faculty who take on the most caregiving.
Accomplishing these shifts now will not only preserve several generations of faculty and staff at risk of leaving the workforce, but could also enable future research ecosystems that make the most of in-person and remote research and learning options. Already, some fields—depending on the nature of the research—are considering entirely virtual operations. While this flexibility is abundantly clear in software and modeling research, the potential for hybrid work in biomedical sciences and engineering, which heavily depend on the bench and clinical research, is also expanding. New tools such as electronic laboratory notebooks and information management systems have modernized remote access to data and collaboration. While moving to robotic wet lab work (which can assist researchers to conduct remote experimentation in certain conditions) has long been on the horizon, incorporating automation and artificial intelligence into laboratory tasks has accelerated during the pandemic. Combined with digital analytical tools, automation and AI have given bench researchers new ways to work. Today, funders have an opportunity to improve the lives of researchers and encourage healthier work environments by supporting the development and expansion of these hybrid tools.
Planning for postpandemic campus operations often still focused on spaces used for instruction and the support of undergraduate students, with an underlying assumption that laboratory spaces—and the overhead dollars that support them—will remain more or less constant with an imminent return to routine work. However, although many laboratories will require some in-person activities and staffing in the long term, if research groups shifted toward hybrid work, the shift could reveal new ways to use precious energy and space. The drastic changes in technical work accelerated by the pandemic, much like the process of scientific evidence generation, will require regular, systemic examinations of how policies affect the workforce and its productivity.
What’s particularly intriguing about this shift in STEM research is how it could accomplish wider social goals. Enabling all parents to devote more time to caregiving could significantly benefit children. It could also result in more parity between male and female faculty members while allowing for a more diverse group of researchers, including those living with disabilities, to fully participate in research. The reduction or even partial elimination of commuting could reduce pollution and carbon emissions and support a more diverse and distributed workforce.
Even if individual research institutions develop particular workforce policies, the collective baseline priority should be to more effectively and responsibly engage with worker needs in a world of health and climate challenges. As arguments about virtual work, personal preferences, and environmental impacts swell across the nation, research institutions sit at a crossroads. Will remote work infrastructure enabled by COVID-19 proactively guide the research workforce, or will it amplify historic inadequacies? Research institutions have an opportunity to reshape productive STEM research and collaboration, with rigorous reflection centered on the worker experience.