COVID-19: The Contours of an Impact

In France, we are in the seventh week of confinement. In Japan, the state of emergency is in its second week, extending beyond the most affected prefectures to the whole territory.

It is difficult to keen an eye on the big picture. As Fujihara Tatsushi of Kyoto University suggests in a Iwanami blog, humans are particularly good at clinging to a belief that they will for some reason or another not be affected, and even better at clinging to a distant hope of some sort, rather than focusing on the crisis in plain sight. Historical research on pandemics tells us that it will take between 12 and 18 months of disruption before we approach some semblance of normal life again. The road through this crisis is likely rather grim, in particular in Japan with its aging population. A pre-publication in MedRxiv suggests that the number of victims could be cut in half if adequate measures are taken. Sadly, even if strict quarantine and social distancing measure required were to be implemented timely, we can expect 250,000 COVID-19 fatalities in Japan.

What of the impact of COVID-19 on research? As confinement reached the end of the second month in many places across Europe, the first signs of the differential impacts of the confinement are beginning to emerge. Most alarming are indicators that predict long-term gendered impact. Preliminary data from journals suggest that COVID is significantly lowering the scientific productivity of female researchers, while that of male researchers has increased, sometimes by as much as +50%. Editors of academic journals are reporting sharp decreases in submissions from female academics in both sciences and humanities. While evidence remains anecdotal, it consistently falls into the rubric of  » we have never seen this before » and reflects a decrease of one kind of another of female academics’ journal submissions.

Confinement and work-from home restrictions involve short-term reorganization of work routines and division of work-life time. However, the journal submission data is alarming because it implies that long-term effects of the short term reorganization will be borne by female academics massively working in circumstance for which challenging is an understatement.

An article in Nature warns that these differential in productivity is bound to affect women’s careers disproportionately.

The impact of the productivity slump caused by the pandemic will not stop with the end of the confinement. They will have a very long afterlife and will derail careers of female academics. Why? Because in the world after COVID-19, evaluations, promotions, national and international grants and competitive funding opportunities (ANR, ERC etc) will be based in part on track record which will include bursts of male productivity and a functional equivalent of a career interruption for many women. Careers that were documented as being under great strain even in ordinary times. Yet, current assessment protocols do not take into account the disproportionate structural stress on female academic careers. And so, matters of career advancement and promotion, we will all be participating in the same competitions and be subject to evaluations based on the same criteria of productivity .

May the best man win!

Op-ed originally published  in Du Japon dans votre cocon, finement (no 5), April 27, 2020, Confinement Special, Newsletter of the Japan Research Center at the School of Advanced Studies for Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris