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Diversity in COVID-19 team science. Why it matters for recovery

Sara Clavero Technological University Dublin

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for people and societies. It has confirmed the key role of scientific research and innovation for understanding the multiple dimensions of the crisis, preventing and mitigating its impacts and ensuring an inclusive recovery. The pandemic is also changing the way science is done, with an explosion of collaborative effort across countries, disciplines and sectors.

As expressed in a recent New York Times article, “never before (…)  have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency”. In crossing national, disciplinary, and sectoral boundaries, the surge in collaborative effort shatters the myth of the solitary scientist  at the same time that it advances a kind of diversity that is essential for a crisis of this magnitude.  The University of Florida project on the emergence of Covid- 19 team science sums it up as follows: “the pandemic is accelerating the convergence of a highly interdisciplinary and dynamic team science field of coronavirus/Covid-19 research”.  

The urgent challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic may be boosting an important type of diversity; for example, multidisciplinary teams facilitate epistemic diversity, which is an essential element for the current need for highly innovative science.  However, there is also mounting evidence showing that the crisis is having a negative impact on gender diversity in research – a downward trend marking a roll-back of slow, yet steady, progress towards equality achieved over recent years. While more studies are needed to further corroborate early findings, a backlash in gender diversity in the midst of a global crisis is bad news for both science and society, and a matter of serious concern. 

What is the evidence so far? Analyses of gender diversity in scientific collaborations often take named authorship as a valid proxy, as scientists are extremely unlikely to surrender credit for a piece of research on which they are actively engaged. While there are limitations to this method, it can provide a valuable source of data for identifying and monitoring gender gaps in research teams. 

A recent study examined the authorship of published research on Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020. It found that women scientists made up only a third of all authors, and that even fewer of these women were first authors (29%). Gender gaps in the authorship of collaborative science publications do not come as a surprise, given that women were already significantly under-represented in scientific authorship before the start of the pandemic. Yet, the study suggests that a decline in women’s authorship is effectively taking place when their findings are compared to those from previous studies. 

Moving beyond research on Covid-19 specifically, findings from other studies lend support to the more general hypothesis that the pandemic is having a negative impact on women’s scientific productivity, as their publishing rates have been falling relative to men’s since the beginning of the pandemic (see also here). However, differences have been noted across disciplines.

For example, in political science, an analysis conducted by the American Journal of Political Science found a drop in female submissions of single authored manuscripts but when all manuscripts submitted were taken into account, an overall increase in female authorship was observed. At any rate, findings from these studies coincide in pointing to a reversal of pre-pandemic rates of progress, which had led to a slow but steady narrowing of the women to men ratio in authorship, with annual growth rates of 3.9 % between 2008 and 2017 (figures for the European Union

Lack of time to commit to scientific research, due to the traditional gender division of labour, is one of the most cited reasons used to explain this phenomenon. Women are still doing most of unpaid care work, which has further increased due to home-schooling of children during the confinement period and caring responsibilities towards elderly relatives. For Covid-19 research in particular, additional reasons have been suggested.

In the first place, Covid-19 research may be shaped by those in leadership positions, who remain more often men and who may not be attuned to the importance of diverse research teams for good science. Secondly, Covid-19 is a high-profile topic where women may be denied access, overtly or covertly, because of its anticipated high impact. And thirdly, a relatively large amount of the early Covid-19 publications are commissioned articles, which are, in general, more likely to be published by men.

A decline in the gender diversity of research teams may not only be catastrophic for women and their scientific and academic careers, but also have an adverse impact on the quality of Covid-19 science and on society as a whole. A common hypothesis is that diversity brings innovation because the different origins, concerns and experiences of researchers contribute to new perspectives and ways of looking at the world. Traditionally underrepresented groups can draw relations between ideas and concepts that have been missed or ignored by a science predominantly led by teams of white American and European men, who controlled the questions and how these were studied. While important discoveries and innovations have been made by demographically homogeneous teams, many other questions were overlooked or unacknowledged because the experiences of the investigators were limited.  Diverse perspectives are thus often associated with the creation of new questions, methods and findings 

In relation to Covid-19 research, there is an urgent need for innovative science in support of recovery.  Because the current pandemic does not impact everyone equally, it is essential to bring intersecting disadvantages to the fore in order to ensure a more equitable and effective response. This requires diverse and inclusive research teams as well as asking questions about who determines priorities, who benefits from them and who is left behind in the global pandemic responses. 

There is a danger that issues of equality, diversity and inclusion may now recede as a strategic priority for universities, research performing and research funding organisations, not only because of  budget cuts but also because other issues may be prioritised. Lessons from previous crises tell us that this constitutes a very real risk. Yet, continued efforts to advance towards equality, diversity and inclusion in the research and innovation sector will inhibit the threat of future backlash and ensure a better alignment between science and society in a post-pandemic world. 

Sara Clavero

Photo by Ousa Chea on Unsplash

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

July 30, 2020

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