COVID-19 impacts on Australian research workforce predicted to be significant

May 12, 2020

Australia’s research workforce will be severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects are likely to be felt for an extended period. Universities in particular have been dealt a double blow by the pandemic.

A new research report published today details how a dramatic drop in international student fees and business research spending will impact the sector significantly in the next six months and beyond.

University job losses of up to 21,000 full time equivalent (FTE) positions are projected over the next six months of which an estimated 7,000 could be research-related academic staff.

Research interruptions and travel and visa restrictions suggest that more than 9,000 international research students will not resume their research in 2020, according to the report’s authors.

The report’s authors are concerned that women, early-career researchers and recent graduates will disproportionately experience negative impacts.

The report was produced by the Rapid Research Information Forum, a group of 35 research sector lead organisations. The forum is chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, and its operations are led by the Australian Academy of Science.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) led the workforce report.

ATSE Chief Executive Officer, Kylie Walker said industry sectors may experience a reduced capacity to innovate given that universities perform approximately 43% of all applied research in Australia.

“A decline in innovation may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills, and efficiency gains in service and production processes,” Ms Walker said.

The report also found:

  • Income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies, CRCs, and the industrial sector is suffering from the loss of foreign students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.
  • These impacts are greater than during the 2008 global financial crisis and are being observed internationally.
  • To try and make ends meet as budgets contract, universities are reducing the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff, further limiting their research capacity.

The rapid research brief responds to a request for advice from the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission on what impact the pandemic is having and likely to have on Australia’s research workforce, and whether we will have the research workforce capability to support our recovery efforts.

The report synthesises the evidence base on this matter, has been informed by relevant experts and has been peer reviewed. Details of the report’s contributors can be found in the report’s appendix.

Read the report.

Background information

The Rapid Research Information Forum was launched on 29 April. The first four published reports respond to questions posed by the Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP; and the fifth to the Minister for Education, the Hon Dan Tehan MP.

The RRIF will answer a range of questions in upcoming reports at the request of Industry, Science and Technology Minister the Hon Karen Andrews MP; and Health Minister the Hon Greg Hunt MP.

The growing list of questions includes:

  1. COVID-19 vaccines and treatments being developed globally that are regarded as having most promise (including national and international collaborations and consortia), and what are the mechanisms for action for each of these?
  2. What motivates people to download and continue to use the COVIDSafe app?
  3. What impact is the COVID-19 epidemic having on women in the STEM workforce?
  4. How long does the SARS-CoV-2 virus remain viable on different surfaces, particularly cotton, wool, other common textile blends, cardboard, plastic, stainless steel and copper?

Read all the reports of the forum

Rapid Research Information Forum member organisations

  • Australia’s Chief Scientist (Chair)
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering
  • Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences
  • Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia
  • Australian Academy of the Humanities
  • Royal Society Te Apārangi (New Zealand)
  • Australian Council of Learned Academies
  • State and Territory Chief Scientists
  • Chief Science Advisor to the Government of New Zealand
  • Scientific expert members of the National Science and Technology Council
  • CSIRO
  • Universities Australia
  • Science & Technology Australia

© 2020 Australian Academy of Science

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