Press Release No. 9 | March 29, 2023

The Coronavirus Pandemic – Consequences and Opportunities for Science and the Humanities

Report by the DFG's Senate Working Group on the challenges related to research activities, individual career paths and funding activities

Report by the DFG's Senate Working Group on the challenges related to research activities, individual career paths and funding activities

As was the case in all areas of society, the coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on science and the humanities from the very outset, affecting both individual researchers and the research system as a whole. In addition to subject-specific issues, this concerned numerous problems relating to the organisation and processes involved in research work, not least the basic functioning and capabilities of projects and institutions.

In view of this, the Senate of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) established a Working Group in 2021 to identify and assess these and other pandemic-related changes affecting the research system. In addition to the adverse effects, the focus was also on any opportunities and benefits that arose or were developed in the course of the pandemic.

Chaired by the two DFG Vice Presidents Professor Dr. Britta Siegmund and Professor Dr. Julika Griem, the Senate Working Group was made up of twelve representatives of the Senate and other DFG statutory bodies, and also four researchers in early career phases in order to explicitly ensure that the perspective of the younger generation was included in the debate.

The Working Group’s final report now published sheds light on various areas of research and funding activity and, based on members’ observations, identifies measures and needs for action on the part of the DFG and other actors in the research system.

According to the Working Group’s observations, certain areas and groups of people were particularly sensitive to the adverse effects of the pandemic. For example, projects that were in their planning phase or just getting under way were particularly affected by contact and travel restrictions imposed as a result of decisions made by policymakers and authorities. The situation made it difficult to establish new research contacts and collaborations and set up research environments as a whole.

Pandemic-related restrictions on research work varied from subject to subject: they included laboratory closures, restricted or selective access to archives, collections and libraries and obstacles to or cancellations of field investigations. This is where a whole series of DFG emergency support measures came into play as early as spring 2020 which aimed to cushion the impact of these adverse effects on a subject-specific basis so as to enable the continuation and completion of funded research work. In addition to these measures, which included extensions of project funding, cost-neutral project and deadline extensions as well as the more flexible use of funds, it proved effective to ensure that reviews of project proposals (and renewal proposals) took into account the impact of the pandemic.

In addition to suffering the adverse effects typical of their specific subject area, researchers in early career phases were often not just prevented from changing locations – as would normally be the case in the early stage of an academic career – they also lacked opportunities for networking and establishing new contacts in the community. School and kindergarten closures resulting from the pandemic protection measures particularly affected researchers in early career phases due to the fact that they generally found themselves having to take on increased care and welfare responsibilities during the family phase. According to the Working Group, it will take several years at least to quantify the extent to which these adverse effects and additional burdens might have led to an increased number of people abandoning their career.

The most far-reaching and lasting change caused by the pandemic to the research system as a whole was the push towards digitisation, leading to more widespread use of digitised research methods and in particular the use of digital communication. Digital exchange formats have proven suitable for day-to-day use and now also significantly reduce the overall cost and travel involved in enabling dialogue among researchers. Providing the appropriate infrastructure is in place, digital channels also have a positive impact in terms of increasing participation in research dialogue. The Working Group sees this as a positive opportunity, especially with regard to combating climate change. Nevertheless, face-to-face meetings continue to be vital to research work and the exchange of information, especially when it comes to building new collaborations, engaging in creative processes and developing ideas collaboratively.

Here the DFG Senate Working Group advocates being open-minded about the new digital possibilities and also improving the technical infrastructure. At the same time, however, clear ideas and decision-making aids are to be developed so as to be able to determine which types of event require face-to-face contact and which can be carried out digitally or in hybrid form without compromising the substance or research subject matter.

Finally, the Working Group concludes that the DFG’s continuous funding activities during the pandemic had a stabilising effect on the research system. It is now vital for the DFG to learn from the experience of the pandemic and continue to monitor its longer-lasting effects so as to increase resilience to future crises.

Further information

The report of the Senate Working Group in full:

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