New report on the COVID-19 pandemic: How the lives of researchers were impacted

The lives of researchers changed dramatically during the lockdown, and in several different ways, according to head of research Espen Solberg.

Familie på kjøkkenet: mor jobber, far snakker med datter.

Although female researchers experienced more time pressure during the lockdown, what emerges from the NIFU survey is that women and men with children at home had less time for research. (Illustration: iStockphoto)

The Nordic Institute for Studies of innovation, research and education (NIFU) recently published a working paper about the lives of researchers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic affected researchers in several different ways. The effects include many female researchers changing their research method, and temporary employees having less job satisfaction than those in permanent employment.

The content of the report is based on the responses to a comprehensive survey that was sent out in the autumn of 2022. A total of 2,300 researchers employed at university colleges, universities and research institutes responded to the survey.

Espen Solberg is head of research at NIFU and is responsible for the pandemic project. (Photo: NIFU)

Low priority for research

The NIFU researchers found that the everyday lives of researchers were changed as a result of the lockdown, and not just in one research field.

"We have actually found several areas in which the impact of the lockdown created significant changes," says Espen Solberg, head of research at NIFU and head of the pandemic project of which the survey is a part.

"What are your main findings?"

"The first finding is that research was given a low priority and was set aside to some degree, particularly during the first phase of the pandemic. This is particularly evident in the higher education sector."

"This is perhaps not surprising since we had to prioritise and put resources into teaching. Several respondents reported that there was simply no time left for research," says Solberg.

In contrast, a higher proportion of researchers in the institute sector stated that they were able to concentrate on research during the coronavirus pandemic as a whole.

According to Solberg, this is likely due to the fact that teaching is not one of the main tasks in the institute sector, so the sector avoided the work involved in switching to online teaching. Moreover, he believes that research institutes are often smaller and more flexible institutions than university colleges and universities, and so it was possibly easier for them to adapt to all the changes to infection control measures during the pandemic.

"Did the drop in research also affect the amount researchers published?"

"Yes, we now see that the rate of publication noticeably declined in 2022."

Solberg points out that they had previously found no drop in publication.

"This is largely down to delays in the publishing processes. In other words, the impact the pandemic had on the number of publications only became evident at a later date. It takes months or even years from when an article or research paper is approved until it’s published and registered in the publication figures for the previous year."

"What other changes impacted researchers' work?"

"During the pandemic, working from home became the norm and was even mandatory for long periods of time, including for researchers. Working from home was fairly common even before the pandemic, but it became far more prevalent after the pandemic. This is a development that we will investigate further," Solberg responds.

He believes it will be interesting to follow the consequences of working from home and whether it will be phased out.

Researcher Inge Ramberg wrote the report together with Kaja Wendt. (Photo: NIFU)

More time pressure for women

A report from the European Commission released earlier this year found that the pandemic contributed to reinforcing existing gender disparities in academia in Europe. (See fact box for more information.)

"Have you found that the impact of the pandemic led to any gender disparities?"

"We see some patterns, including the amount of time that could be used for research," says Inge Ramberg, one of the researchers behind the working paper.

"Our survey and others show that, on average, a slightly higher proportion of women experienced increased time pressure during the pandemic and lockdown," he says.

"Do you know why?"

"Several international surveys show that women spent more time looking after their children when they had to stay at home."

The latest survey did not ask directly about childcare responsibilities, but according to Ramberg, previous surveys show that researchers who had children at home during the lockdown had much less time for research than those who did not have such responsibility.

"However, this was true across genders. The fact that gender differences for time use are less extreme in Norway may indicate that researchers in Norway enjoy more gender equality and share childcare responsibilities to a greater extent," says Ramberg.

"We found in a previous survey that women spent more time planning and preparing teaching plans during the pandemic. This may indicate that women are generally more conscientious or put more effort into this task, and therefore experienced a greater time crunch during the pandemic. This is a something we would like to investigate in more detail," Solberg explains.

Women changed method

The report shows that, due to the pandemic restrictions, women changed their research method to a greater extent than men.

"What does that mean and what could be the reason for this?"

"It’s a bit technical. One of the questions we asked was whether the researchers agreed with the statement that the pandemic had led to the use of other empirical methods. Women agreed with this statement significantly more than men," says Solberg.

"The reason that women were more inclined or forced to change their research method needs further analysis," he says.

Solberg believes it may come down to the different fields of research. Methodologies and the use of data vary between and within different subject areas, and perhaps a larger proportion of women work with methods and data that require fieldwork, interviews, observation and so on, which were difficult to conduct during the pandemic.

Best without children

According to the NIFU survey, factors that play a role are whether a researcher has permanent or temporary employment, and whether he or she has childcare responsibilities.

"How does age affect the results? For example, did younger researchers deal with the pandemic differently than older researchers?"

"We found that age did play a role, but we have so far found that the most notable differences are between temporary and permanent employees, including when it comes to delays in research work," Ramberg explains.

"The responses to our 2021 survey show that many researchers without children at home and in permanent positions fared far better during the pandemic."

"In 2022, researchers without permanent positions, with poorer networks, and who were left to fend for themselves, were more likely to report significant delays."

Ramberg makes clear that this needs further analysis.

Pandemic research – why now?

The task of mapping researchers' everyday lives and the effects of the pandemic was commissioned by the authorities during the pandemic.

"The Research Council of Norway announced a monitoring project in autumn 2021. They wanted to monitor the pandemic and then share this information with the authorities, allowing them to more easily track the status of the pandemic and implement any measures that were necessary," Espen Solberg explains, adding:

"Since restrictions were lifted around the same time as the project started, the focus of the task changed slightly. The authorities no longer needed continuous monitoring with a view to implementing new measures, but it was still important to understand what happened during the pandemic and, not least, what kind of effects it will have in the long term."

Unfortunately, only a quarter of those who received the survey responded.

"Nevertheless, we can’t find any serious bias in the respondents’ backgrounds compared to the representative sample that was invited," says Inge Ramberg.

"It feels like the pandemic happened a long time ago, and most people want to put it behind them. Could this be the reason for the low response rate?"

"We don't know, but the response rate probably relates to the fact that people are either tired of the pandemic or don’t consider it relevant. In terms of research, the effect the pandemic had on researchers' lives and the patterns we uncover, are of course relevant. The project will also analyse the effects of the pandemic over four years and shed light on whether the pandemic created any lasting changes," says Ramberg.

"The coronavirus project will continue into 2025. Why is the project so long?"

"The only way to be certain of patterns and actual causal relationships is to follow it over time. It's an extensive task, since the changes we're observing could be due to a number of other factors," he says.

Report on the lives of researchers during the coronavirus pandemic

The working paper «The Lives of Researchers during the Coronavirus Pandemic: results from a panel survey of Norwegian researchers 2022» (2023:9) (in Norwegian) from the Nordic Institute for Studies of innovation, research and education (NIFU) in collaboration with Statistics Norway (SSB) presents the main findings from a survey on the effects of the corona pandemic on researchers.

The authors of the paper are Inge Ramberg and Kaja Wendt. Espen Solberg is head of research for the project «Investigation of the effects of the pandemic on the Norwegian research system» (in Norwegian) which runs from 1 January 2022 until 31 December 2025.

The working paper presents the findings at a general level. Further analyses of selected topics will be carried out and published continuously and as part of the final project. NIFU is planning to hold a webinar this autumn where the results will be presented.

The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway and is a joint initiative from the Research Council itself, the Ministry of Education and Research, Universities Norway and the Association of Norwegian Research Institutes.

EU report on the consequences of the pandemic

The European Commission appointed an expert group in 2021, funded by Horizon Europe. The group's mandate was to uncover the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on gender equality in the research sector in the European Research Area. The report was published in spring 2023.

According to the European Commission report: «COVID-19 impact on gender equality in research and innovation» (2023), the pandemic contributed to reinforcing existing gender disparities in academia, such as scientific publishing and the relationship between work life and family life.