Early-Career Researchers’ prospects during COVID-19: Costed extensions denied to MSCA researchers amid a discourse of support from the EU

The COVID-19 pandemic has now shaken most countries around the world and has effectively become an event that will mark a whole generation. Members of the scientific community with relevant expertise have responded by redirecting their research efforts to study the evolution of the virus, its epidemiology, its societal impact, and the development of a vaccine, just to name a few. At the same time, COVID-19 has affected a myriad of research projects and the researchers that are undertaking them. The lockdowns that started late January in China, followed by those in Europe as early as late February, have affected many areas of work, including that of scientific research. With university and other research institutions closed, researchers from natural and social sciences as well as humanities, have had their research interrupted at different levels: from slight readjustments to work from home to complete project interruptions that cause significant delays. In response to this, several European funding bodies announced early on either automatic or on-demand costed extensions, meaning an extension of the project duration with its accompanying salary supplement to pay researchers during this extension period. Among the funders that have announced such alleviating measures are the Portuguese FCT, the German DFG, the EMBO, the Spanish government (and the regional Galician government), the Wellcome Trust, among others.

For the particular case of Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) fellows (ITN, IF, COFUND, and RISE), funded by the European Commission (EC), extensions such as the aforementioned have thus far been lacking. An early e-mail and public communication from the MSCA directed to its fellows regarding COVID-19-related consequences for projects stated that these “could also be exceptionally extended, if necessary”. As any reasonable person would, many fellows believed the MSCA was, as other European funders had already done, extending their full support to researchers and was going to provide costed extensions. Disappointingly, this was not the case. Following communications between MSCA fellows and their Project Officers (POs) at the Research Executive Agency (REA), which handles all administrative issues MSCA projects, it was clarified that these case-by-case “extensions” were to be cost neutral (i.e. project duration extended, albeit with no budget increase to pay the additional employment costs). Many of the affected fellows were appalled.

International researcher mobility has been shown to be strongly connected with the desire of early-career researchers for career advancement. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, family-related challenges have been identified as the greatest barrier to international mobility with the career prospects of women being more affected by this issue. MSCA has been a very prominent supporter of equality, diversity, inclusion and equality is an intrinsic element of the evaluation of MSCA proposals and selection of MSCA fellows. Indeed, MSCA offers the Career Restart Panel that supports researchers to restart their career after a career break, for example, parental leave. Nevertheless, the administration of the grants often lacks the flexibility to deal with the real-world problems faced by many early-career researchers: child birth, child care, and dual career issues. The career development of the same group of fellows is most affected by the current crisis.

For many PhD fellows under ITN actions, the lockdown periods will acutely impact the already tight, and often insufficient, 3-year limit of their grant, and will certainly leave many of them without salaries during the additional time they will need to complete their work and write up their theses.

Due to the mobility rule of these grants and the prestige and the career opportunity they represent, PhD and Postdoctoral MSCA fellows relocate to their new host countries often taking their partners and/or children along. This means that in many cases, the MSCA fellows are the sole providers for their families, at least at the  beginning of the relocation. In addition, many European countries do not offer access to unemployment or other social benefits such as parental allowance until the researcher has worked at least one year in the host country. This situation is exacerbated for recipients of MSCA Global Fellowships, whose projects include a research placement of up to two years outside the EU, where social benefits are not a norm and access might be restricted to foreigners. Finally, other fellows have fallen ill with COVID-19, which has also caused severe work interruptions.

Following communications between several fellows and their  POs, many got the response that no costed extensions are possible and were offered one of the following four options:

  1. Continue project work through remote working.
  2. Temporary suspension of the MSCA grant (with its accompanying suspension of salary).
  3. Switching to a 50% work pattern (with 50% salary).
  4. Use “Research, training and networking unit” costs to extend contracts.

These options give the REA and institutions some flexibility to adapt project plans and sustain the internal financial cohesion of the original Grant Agreement. However, the options do not adequately address how curtailing projects will reduce the career development outcomes for early-career researchers.

While option 1 can certainly be a solution for some fellows, it fails to take into account a number of circumstances many fellows find themselves in during this COVID-19 pandemic. Many projects are just in their beginning stages and others are past a phase of redaction and publication of results. Others depend entirely on field work (e.g. archival research or sample collection trips), leaving no actual work to be done during the lockdowns. Other fellows are taking care of their children now 24/7 (due to school closures), sometimes as single parents, leaving this group of researchers, especially women, particularly affected by this lockdown.

Regarding options 2 and 3, they are simply inadequate for a great number of fellows which rely on their salaries for providing for them, their families, and/or other financial dependants. In addition, 50% work contracts are not universally embraced by the host institutions. Option 2 is especially damaging to non-EU fellows in Europe (or EU citizens outside of the EU) and fellows that have only worked less than a year in their new host countries. Following a suspension of the work contract, the administration should be contacted to inform of the change of situation, thus leading to a suspension of the residency permit.

Finally, option 4 falls short for many projects. Redirecting available research costs translates to the project being severely truncated or even becoming unfeasible, depending on the length of the needed extension. Usually most research costs are spent in the early phases of such short 2- or 3-year projects, particularly in the natural sciences. Also, redirecting these funds requires the agreement of both the host institution and group, which more often than not have not been willing to agree to such measures.

Even though the position expressed by the MSCA, REA, and EC has been of a complete rejection of periods of free labour or of fellows being “forced” to agree to option 1 and 2, little oversight from the MSCA’s part has and will be an issue which will undoubtedly lead to these abuses. In times when the EC, the REA , the MSCA, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel, and EC President von der Leyen have all publicly claimed support for science, research, and researchers as key to combatting this epidemic and facing future challenges, tangible support for early-career researchers has been lacking. Yes, we need to help countries hit hard by this pandemic! Yes, we need to support our health-care workers! Yes, we need to support our economies! But we also need to support our researchers. We do not know where the next global challenge will come from and this is not the time to abandon and continue to ignore the very real impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will continue to have on the researchers’ careers and the projects they lead.

As MSCA fellows,

  • We have launched a petition that has raised over 1.300 signatures and received a response from MSCA, with no mention of costed extensions.
  • We have jointly with the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) published a statement on the need for costed extensions.
  • MSCA fellow Nathalie Conrad has sent a letter to President von der Leyen co-signed by another 32 fellows. We are still waiting for a reply.
  • MCAA has launched a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on MSCA projects, which has already collected over 230 filled forms.

Our careers are at risk, our personal lives and mental health are being affected, our projects are at risk of failing, and all because of the lack of clear support from our funders: The EU, the REA, and the MSCA. The time to stop relinquishing responsibility of your fellows to host institutions and show us your support through costed extensions is now!

By Alejandro Manzano Marín
MSCA IF Postdoctoral researcher
Work email: alejandro.manzano.marin (at) univie.ac.at
Twitter: @amanzanom
University of Vienna, Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science, Division of Microbial Ecology

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