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This is a challenging time for professors and researchers alike. As we struggle to switch to online education, data collection projects and experiments have been forced to shut down or be moved online, and events such as conferences and outreach activities have been cancelled. Just like everyone else, we are trying to find ways of coping with stress and insecurity, while balancing care for our loved ones with work that cannot be put on hold.
It is certainly not business as usual, as some of our colleagues have recently pointed out. This is why it is vital that now, more than ever, we act as one and encourage and enable solidarity, not least as it is quite possible that this ‘unusual business’ may continue for several months. If we do not practice solidarity with and generosity towards our colleagues, a schism will arise.
Some of us will be overwhelmed by the combined demands of teaching, care, as well as the mental strain of the situation. Hence, some may find it impossible to fulfill their professional responsibilities, while others will find that the crisis provides them with an opportunity to work free from distraction. We would like to start a conversation about this. And while we primarily target our fellow academics here, solidarity with our support staff is equally important, even if it might take other forms and require different measures.
Allow for solidarity
These circumstances require solidarity with each other, as well as understanding of each other’s situations. We should support those colleagues whose teaching obligations require them to give their all in implementing new approaches to online education and assessment at great speed. We should have empathy with those colleagues and students who can no longer keep to their usual schedule because they must homeschool their children or perform other duties of care.
Let’s also consider international colleagues, who have left their homelands to forge careers in the Netherlands and must now ride out the storm alone. And let’s be mindful of how difficult it may be to continue to apply the focus and creativity necessary to work on dissertations, manuscripts, or research proposals.
Now is the time for those of us who are lucky enough to muster the mental space and energy to work effectively to look beyond ourselves. We may be able to relieve those colleagues for whom a heavy teaching load or personal responsibility are proving too great a burden. We might contact colleagues suffering from the stress of social isolation, for instance by organizing regular chats, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks – virtually, of course.
We can only make this work if we all give our support and the risks are spread evenly. Universities, administrators, NWO, and other funding bodies should jointly make this possible. Universities could consider extending contracts of temporary employees, including PhD students. Under the assumption that many of the restrictions now in place will remain so into the summer, an extension of, say, six months doesn’t seem unreasonable. And this needs to become effective as soon as possible. The current situation demands more from us all, and an extension of contracts will offer great relief.
This is especially true for PhD students, whether internally or externally funded, as an extension to their contracts, and the grants or salary attached, is vital at times when their projects might be stalled for months through no fault of their own. Considering the measures already taken by the Dutch and other governments to support the economy, it is not too much to ask that such a relief system be put in place.
Minimally, extensions of the processes underlying tenure track assessments or promotions are also needed. This, however, would mean that young academics would have to deal with the accompanying uncertainty about tenure or promotion for an even longer period of time. So universities should consider taking further steps and instead adapt the criteria for tenure or promotions to accommodate these unique circumstances. Examples might include different ways of recognising and rewarding academic work and evaluating people on the basis of fewer productive years than usual. Why not appreciate and reward support given to colleagues, implementation of new online modes of teaching, and displays of solidarity?
In other words, let’s start from a position of trust in the qualities an individual has already demonstrated in the past. Similar to what has been decided with regard to final exams in secondary education, assessment and advisory committees should also be allowed to base their judgements on slightly less information. A gap in someone’s CV, when caused by the C-19 pandemic, doesn’t say anything about someone’s scholarly or scientific merits. Making researchers and professors jump through fewer hoops and putting a little more faith in their capabilities instead is in everyone’s interest.
NWO and ZonMW are already adapting the procedures of their grant instruments to the current situation. Ongoing projects should also be extended to enable their successful completion despite the C-19 pandemic. In Germany, DFG has decided to grant all the PhD students it currently funds the option of a three-month paid extension. With an eye to the future, it seems reasonable to us that the rules for NWO’s Talent Scheme (‘Vernieuwingsimpuls’), prize nominations, and so forth be augmented with a ‘corona clause’, offering a generous extension to those whose productivity was negatively impacted by C-19. Applicants should not be required to demonstrate the negative consequences of Covid-19 to their research – for how could such an impact be measured objectively? In any case, The Young Academy will reconsider its current extension clause pertaining to membership.
In these uncertain times, what is required from us as academics, universities, funders, and administrators is to consider how we might best address the challenges that face us all and support each other. It is in nobody’s interest that academics feel compelled to neglect themselves, their dependents, or their duties of care in fear of their career suffering. When an already overloaded system is hit by a crisis of this magnitude, measures must be put in place to alleviate stress and reduce work pressure.
On behalf of The Young Academy,
Martijn Wieling, Belle Derks, Stefan van der Stigchel, Jeroen de Ridder, Hester den Ruijter, Merel Keijzer, Arjan Houtepen, and Lisa Becking
Translated from Dutch into English by: Nadine Akkerman & Pete Langman