Aus STEM workforce feels the blow of COVID‑19

By Lauren Davis
Monday, 25 May, 2020

Aus STEM workforce feels the blow of COVID‑19

Australia’s research workforce will be severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic for an extended period, according to a newly published report — with universities in particular having been dealt a double blow.

‘Impact of the pandemic on Australia’s research workforce’ was produced by the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) — a group of 35 research sector lead organisations chaired by Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel and led by the Australian Academy of Science. The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) led the workforce report.

The report details how a dramatic drop in international student fees (estimated at $2.2–2.5bn for 2020) and business research spending will impact the sector significantly in the next six months and beyond. University job losses of up to 21,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions are projected over the next six months, of which an estimated 7000 could be research-related academic staff. Research interruptions and travel and visa restrictions meanwhile suggest that more than 9000 international research students will not resume their research in 2020.

ATSE Chief Executive Officer Kylie Walker said industry sectors may experience a reduced capacity to innovate given that universities perform approximately 43% of all applied research in Australia. “A decline in innovation may limit economic growth by slowing the development of new technology, skills and efficiency gains in service and production processes,” she said.

The report also found:

  • Income to universities, medical research institutes, publicly funded research agencies, CRCs and the industrial sector is suffering from the loss of foreign students and a sharp decline in business research spending and philanthropy.
  • These impacts are greater than during the 2008 global financial crisis and are being observed internationally.
  • To try and make ends meet as budgets contract, universities are reducing the number of casual teachers and increasing the teaching loads of permanent staff, further limiting their research capacity.

The report’s authors are concerned that women, early-career researchers and recent graduates will disproportionately experience negative impacts. Indeed, a second RRIF report, ‘The impact of COVID-19 on women in the STEM workforce’, indicates that hard-won gains for women’s advancement in the sector are now at risk of a major setback.

Led by ATSE and Science & Technology Australia (STA), the report suggests that women — who were already under-represented in STEM — have suffered even greater job losses than men, as well as carrying a greater share of responsibilities for caring and distance learning duties during isolation. Australia’s scientific and technical services industry recorded job losses of 5.6% from mid-March to mid-April 2020, with jobs down 6.3% for women compared with 4.8% for men in this field.

“With casual and short-term contract jobs likely to be the first to go, women are at particular risk — with women in STEM one and a half times more likely to be in insecure jobs,” noted STA CEO Misha Schubert.

Lead author Professor Emma Johnston AO FTSE, Dean of Science at UNSW Sydney, said the report confirms an urgent need for STEM employers to closely monitor and mitigate the gender impact of the pandemic on jobs and careers — or the hard work over many years to recruit and retain more women in STEM could be undone.

“The challenges are likely to be most acute for women in STEM with children under 12,” Prof Johnston said. “The combination of juggling working from home while supervising distance learning for children has made women’s well-documented ‘double burden’ even greater again.”

These and other RRIF reports can be read at

Image credit: © STUDIOS

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