25 Aug 2020   |   News

Marie Curie researchers ‘betrayed’ by commission’s refusal to extend costs

Scientists funded by prestigious EU scheme whose projects were delayed by pandemic lockdowns want the European Commission to extend their grants and help push projects over the finish line

The European Commission should grant paid extensions to Marie Skłodowska Curie (MSCA) fellows, say researchers who had to put their research on hold during the coronavirus lockdown.

To date, the commission has offered a few options to MSCA grantees affected by the pandemic. Researchers could continue their projects working remotely, suspend the grant and research salaries temporarily, switch to a 50 per cent work pattern, or use money allocated for research, training and networking costs to extend salaries.

But more and more researchers say these concessions are not enough. Some fear they will not be able to complete projects in time and that their academic careers will suffer in future if other science funding agencies see they did not meet the conditions of EU grants.

The Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) is surveying researchers to assess the impact of COVID-19 on their work and whether the available routes to reducing the impact on their projects are insufficient. In the meantime, a petition demanding paid extensions has already been signed by more than 1,500 scientists.

According to MCAA vice chair Fernanda Bajanca, the survey received almost 400 replies from researchers, of whom 48 per cent say they were not able to continue working on their projects during the lockdown.

In 91 per cent of cases that was because projects required lab work. Some researchers also said the lack of data or appropriate software to work remotely has been a problem. Some 13 per cent of researchers had to stop working because they had to take care of children who were no longer allowed to go to school.

“The impact of these few months of lockdown may affect their project outputs and have serious repercussions in their careers when they compete with their non-affected peers for grants and jobs,” Bajanca said.

MSCA researchers have been asking the commission whether it could replicate initiatives by national funding agencies that offered paid extensions to research projects for three to six months. Researchers funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) are allowed to transfer 2020 grant money to 2021 and they can receive money to extend salaries if projects have been delayed by the pandemic.

“It would be contradictory to invest so much on the most promising talents to see them lagging behind when compared with peers from other funding sources, which may be able to provide more support at this moment,” said Bajanca.

But the commission has so far refused to do the same for its MSCA grantees and suggested some researchers could apply for unemployment benefits, an idea which Nathalie Conrad, a Marie Curie researcher working at KU Leuven on very large biomedical datasets for epidemiological studies, says is “terribly unfair.”

Conrad has Swiss citizenship and moved to Belgium a year ago after completing her PhD in the UK. But the Belgian government will not grant her unemployment benefits because she has not made enough social security contributions. Other MSCA grantees from outside of the EU do not qualify for unemployment benefits either.

MSCA grants are highly coveted because they allow researchers to work and gain experience abroad and do high-level research in Europe’s most reputable institutions. A lot of grantees are not working in their home country and their access to social security and other benefits is precarious.

Researchers are facing immense pressure to not only finish the projects they signed up for, but also to write the next funding application. “No one is going to finance a researcher who has not finished their previous project,” said Conrad.

‘Betrayed’ researchers

When Belgium went into lockdown, Conrad was offered the possibility of working from home, but she quickly realised that would be very difficult. Her two children were no longer going to kindergarten and taking care of them occupied most of her time, as her husband has a full-time job which required physical presence even during the lockdown.

For five months, Conrad said she has worked very little on her research project, about two or three hours in the morning when her husband was able to take care of the children. “I’ve been at home for three months until June with the kids,” said Conrad. “My research has been put back terribly.”

Conrad, who is doing research on 35 million patient records across more than 20 diseases, has a year left to finish her project. She was planning to complete it sooner so she can write applications for funding her next career step. A paid extension to the grant agreement to cover the costs incurred by the pandemic would allow Conrad to complete her project and apply for a professorship in 2021. Without the paid extension, “I am not quite sure how I will handle that,” she said.

The other suggestion by the commission, that researchers take unpaid leave or to find additional funding sources, were a tough pill to swallow for many. “That’s absolutely ridiculous to be honest,” said Conrad. 

When she realised the commission would not give her a paid extension, Antonia Weberling, a PhD fellow in the ImageInLife MSCA project, “felt betrayed.” Her work has also been delayed as her lab was closed down for three months, with only staff caring for research animals allowed on site.

When she finally returned to her lab at Cambridge University to continue work on embryonic modelling in mice, Weberling had to spend three months breeding new mice. Before the pandemic, she was spending most of her time in the lab, but now the lab is open only six hours per day, which will delay her project even further.

A letter to von der Leyen

In April, Conrad wrote a letter to commission president Ursula von der Leyen and research commissioner Mariya Gabriel to complain about the commission’s “unfair” decision to leave some MSCA grantees to work out for themselves how to complete projects without incurring delays or additional costs.

Both von der Leyen and Gabriel replied to Conrad’s letter in July, only to say the commission stands by its four suggested options. However, von der Leyen said the commission is “carefully analysing” the results of the MCAA survey. “We are committed to apply  as  much  flexibility  as  possible,  taking  into account the different circumstances of each specific case,” she said.

Since then, both Conrad and Weberling have file individual complaints to the EU ombudsman, arguing that the commission’s refusal to grant extensions means it is essentially asking researchers to do unpaid work. “The option is working unpaid or we abandon our career in academia,” Conrad said. In her letter to the ombudsman, Conrad has also raised the problem of gender balance and how the coronavirus crisis has deepened the gap between women and men in academia.

Weberling said she and her fellow MSCA researchers felt “invisible” but hope that raising awareness about their problems will help them get additional funding to complete their projects. She has launched an online petition to gather more support from fellow PhD grantees.

German MEP Christian Doleschal has recently rallied behind MSCA researchers and sent another letter to von der Leyen, asking for additional financial support for researchers whose work has been delayed by the pandemic.

“We are still hopeful [the commission] will realise what they are doing and change their policy,” said Conrad.

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