Emerging from uncertainty: International perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on university research

This extensive report, which we have prepared on behalf of Springer Nature, discusses the findings of a study that has examined the evidence of current and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on research activities within universities.

This work focusses on two higher education systems, in the UK and Australia, which are particularly reliant on international student fees to cross-subsidise research. However, many of the findings are equally applicable to higher education and research systems globally, as are the risks of failing to protect investment in these systems over the coming years.

A brief excerpt from the report’s introduction is available below. If you only wish to read our key messages, please see this brief summary of the report.

A pivotal moment for research

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic. With a total of 215 countries and territories affected worldwide, the world as we knew it changed beyond recognition in a matter of weeks. Since then, barely any aspect of society has been left undisrupted, and the economic and social repercussions continue to spread.

As governments, businesses and citizens alike await a vaccine against and effective treatments for the coronavirus disease, science has become mainstream, enjoying extensive media coverage and influence. The pandemic has also created an opportunity to stymie growing anti-expert sentiments, demonstrating unequivocally the fundamental role played by scientific research in our society.

Yet the pandemic’s effect on the research enterprise has been enormously disruptive. Social distancing measures have brought many research projects to a halt, slowing down most others. Postgraduate and early career researchers have been deprived of networking and publishing opportunities and face crumbling career prospects. Concern is growing over disproportionate impacts on groups with protected characteristics and the mental health of researchers. On the research information side, COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to digital but also placed existing infrastructure under strain. Open access and open data have gained prominence just as library budgets are being squeezed. For university research funding a double impact is looming. Potential cuts in external research funding (from government, charities and industry) risk compounding the damage done by precipitous declines in other institutional income streams (including domestic and international student tuition fees, accommodation and conferences).

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