When it comes to science, the impact of the pandemic has been ambivalent. On the one hand, the biggest health crisis in generations highlighted the vital importance of research in our societies. Within days, the virus genome was decoded and shared with researchers worldwide, and a vaccine became available within less than a year. On the other hand, the scientific community suffered a severe disruption of its routines. Laboratories and lecture halls stayed empty for a long time.
The situation particularly affected those who spent longer research periods abroad during the years of the pandemic, as they often found themselves in frustrating circumstances: although physically present in a new city, at a new university, they could not enjoy lively personal exchanges but spent their time conducting online meetings in cramped rented accommodation.
Young scientists suffered particularly, as illustrated by the Erwin Schrödinger Fellowships of the Austrian Science Fund FWF – one of the most important exchange programmes of its kind in Austria, which enables dozens of young scientists to go to top international research institutions every year after completing their doctorates. “The number of Schrödinger Fellowships approved in 2021 dropped by more than a third compared to the previous year, although the approval rate remained relatively constant,” says Barbara Zimmermann, head of the FWF's Strategy–Career Development department. “Applications are down sharply, although evaluations of the programme show very clearly how big the grants’ impact is on career development.”
Doing research with the world's best
Martin Reiss, who now works at the Institute of Space Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), is a case in point when it comes to how beneficial a stay abroad on a Schrödinger Fellowship can be. Reiss, a physicist from Styria who specialises in modelling the solar magnetic field and space weather, spent two years at the NASA Goddard Space Center in Maryland in the USA starting in 2018. “I think it's great that the Schrödinger Fellowship gives you the freedom to decide where you want to spend your time abroad – even if you may have to live on a rather tight budget once you’re there,” Reiss notes. “You can choose the experts you want to work with according to your own career goals.”
Reiss sees a twofold benefit. First, he was able to do “research beyond the state of the art” at his chosen location – i.e. he was actually able to contribute significantly to expanding the current state of research. Secondly, he liked the opportunity to network with the local – and global – research community. “The human aspects on site were particularly important in my case. You can exchange ideas and discuss them with leading experts in the field on a daily basis quite informally in the corridor.”
These ideas gave rise, inter alia, to two international teams set up by Reiss. They bring together a total of 60 researchers from 25 countries and are engaged in important research questions in the field of space weather. “One objective is to improve investigations of the sources of solar wind, and secondly we want to reach a consensus on validation standards for solar wind models across the research field,” explains Reiss, who thereby not only improved space weather models but was also awarded the prestigious Alexander Chizhevsky Medal in 2021 in recognition of this networking achievement.
When the corona pandemic hit the globe, Reiss was just about to pull up sticks in the USA. He would be hard put to imagine how his stay would have gone during the coronavirus crisis.
Online conference instead of meeting in person
Verena Kohler is one of the researchers who had to face precisely this problem. A biochemist who completed her doctorate at the University of Graz, Kohler knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in science. She coordinated a joint stay in Sweden with her partner, who is also a scientist. “We had been in Stockholm for a year when the pandemic hit Europe. So I already knew all the people in my university environment personally, which greatly facilitated things,” recounts Kohler. “Even though the coronavirus crisis was handled differently in Sweden from many other European countries, personal contacts were severely limited. Like everywhere else, meetings were held only online here as well. Informal conversations in a café or over dinner didn’t happen.”
Kohler reacted quickly and tried to make the best of this challenging situation. “To compensate for the loss of these contacts, I tried to be more proactive. I increasingly approached people on digital communication channels and deliberately used these channels to establish and maintain contacts. Social networks such as Twitter, where you can post scientific content and exchange ideas, are also helpful in this context,” explains Kohler. “It might take more courage to approach people online rather than starting a casual conversation in the hallway. At the end of the day, however, being proactive helped me not to feel as though I missed out on a great deal during my stay just because of the crisis.”
An added boon was that the FWF granted a three-month extension to make up for any missed opportunities. In the end, the head of her working group in Sweden made it possible for her to stay for a further year. In addition, Kohler is also using the return phase of the fellowship to complete her projects and look for the right job. The FWF grants monthly continuation payments for a maximum of one year upon return to the country of origin. Like Kohler, Reiss reports that this offer helped him to continue funding his research work and to bring the know-how he had gained to fruition in Austria.
What will remain of the crisis?
One thing is obvious: some of the changes brought about by the pandemic are here to stay. It remains to be seen whether one of these lasting changes will be a reduction in researcher mobility. After all, video telephony and online collaboration have become widely accepted and commonplace. It seems logical that there will be a decline especially in short trips. “Conferences will continue to be organised in hybrid formats. Whether one participates online or in person will probably depend more on the budget a research group has at its disposal. Professors will perhaps no longer do one day trips to another city by air for a thesis presentation,” Kohler notes by way of example. “In the end, these savings could even have a positive effect on leaving more room for longer stays abroad.”
There is no evidence that research stays will become less important for the careers of young scientists in the future. “I see how difficult it is for colleagues who haven’t gained experience abroad to get a good position,” Kohler says. “It is not only the research stay itself that is important. Being awarded a fellowship also shows that you have the ability to raise funding – a skill that is particularly important for a career in science.”
CV as a career launchpad
Reiss sees things in much the same way: “Of course I hope that the stays abroad will return at least to previous levels. You have to be there to really experience the atmosphere at a top research institution,” explains Reiss. He considers the experience to be of major importance for his future career: “I have just written an application for an ERC Starting Grant awarded by the European Research Council. For this award, the CV of the applicant is just as important as the respective research project.”
The views of the two fellows is in line with the assessment of the FWF’s career expert Barbara Zimmermann: “It seems likely that short-term congress and conference mobility will no longer reach pre-pandemic levels for reasons of cost and, not least, climate protection. However, purely digital mobility will not be able to replace the wealth of experience of a research stay that the Schrödinger Fellowship provides. Hardly any other period has more impact on the development of an independent research profile than the postdoc research abroad.”