Public policy report

US R&D Community Pandemic Recovery Lagging

February 25, 2021

The federal government’s response to the impacts of the pandemic on the scientific enterprise is imperative, as highlighted by a recent APS Office of Government Affairs (OGA) issue brief. The short report includes an analysis of abstract submissions to the 2021 March Meeting, the largest physics conference in the world. The abstract submission data offers a picture of the current health of the physics research enterprise, including the following specific impacts:

  • Overall US physics research output was significantly reduced from the 2020 March Meeting to the 2021 March Meeting.
  • US experimental physics was severely impacted by the pandemic, with 20% fewer abstracts in 2021 than in 2020.
  • US researchers at critical career stages are being disproportionately affected, in particular recent graduates (<5 years since PhD) and early-career researchers (5-15 years post-PhD).
  • US female scientists, in particular early-career faculty/researchers who received their PhD between 5 and 15 years prior, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Among the submitters in this career stage, the number of US female submitters decreased by more than -15% – more than double the decrease of their male counterparts (-6.9%) percent decline.

The APS OGA brief calls for specific policy responses to address the needs of the groups within the physics community most affected by the pandemic. Partial- or full-cost extensions, for example, should be prioritized to experimental physics researchers, as necessary. Targeted programs are needed to ensure continuity in the careers of recent PhD graduates and postdocs, allowing them to continue to develop the independent research skill that will enable them to become more competitive, regardless of their career choices. Finally, federal science agencies should enact a way for research stimulus funding to be distributed with particular consideration given to researchers who face family-care demands, regardless of gender-identity.

APS is encouraged by the steps Congress and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are taking to address the pandemic’s impacts on the R&D community, many of which align with the recommendations included in the OGA issue brief. They include the House Science Committee’s bipartisan reintroduction of the Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act and the bipartisan, bicameral reintroduction of the RISE Act early in the 117th Congress. Additionally, comments made during a recent public National Science Board meeting indicate NSF is planning for the prioritization of relief funding to researchers most impacted by the pandemic and those at vulnerable transition points in their careers.

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