March 29, 2021

Van Hollen, Brown, Klobuchar Request Support for Women in Research Workforce

Senators Pushing for Action Following New NASEM Committee Report Sheds Light on Negative Impact of COVID-19 on Women Researchers, Faculty

U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wrote to National Science Foundation (NSF) Director Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan requesting information on NSF’s efforts to support women in faculty and research roles who have been disproportionately affected by the public health and economic crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is essential that we fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on women’s workload, reframe what work we deem has merit, and put proportional supports in place to support and keep women in research,” wrote the senators.

“We cannot afford to cede ground in the progress we have made in diversifying STEM fields,” the senators continued.

A recent committee report studying the impacts of COVID-19 on the careers of women in academic science, engineering, and medicine fields released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) shows that women researchers experienced a decline in publication as well as an increase in workload and a decrease in productivity.

Van Hollen, Brown, and Klobuchar are joined on their letter by Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.).

Earlier this year, Van Hollen, Brown, and Klobuchar co-sponsored legislation to support early-career researchers whose employment opportunities have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Supporting Early-Career Researchers Act would create a new postdoctoral fellowship program at NSF to prevent the loss of research talent due to job market disruptions caused by the economic decline during and after the pandemic.

The senators’ full letter to Director Panchanathan can be found HERE and below:

Dr. Sethuraman Panchanathan

Director, National Science Foundation

2415 Eisenhower Avenue

Alexandria, VA 22314

Dear Dr. Panchanathan:

We are concerned about the negative effects of the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s research workforce, particularly as it affects women researchers. We write to learn more about any actions the National Science Foundation (NSF) has taken to support faculty and researchers, collect information on the disparate impacts on women in the research workforce, evaluate how the inequities of this pandemic have affected its grant award process, and learn about any additional steps NSF is considering to mitigate these challenges. With the recent release of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) committee report studying the impact of COVID-19 on the careers of women in academic science, engineering, and medicine fields we urge you to address this issue in a timely and ongoing manner to ensure women faculty and researchers are not pushed out of the workforce as they have been in other sectors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to bear many imbalances in our society. Before the pandemic, women spent an average of over eight hours more on caregiving work than their male counterparts every week.[1] Since COVID-19 school closures, 33 percent of women have been the primary source of childcare compared to only seven percent of men for employed parents.[2] Women took on additional caretaking work during the pandemic and suffered nearly 54 percent of overall job loss since February 2020, with nearly 2.3 million fewer women in the workforce[3] and at least a quarter of women citing caregiving responsibilities as the primary reason for leaving.[4] Further, job losses are disproportionately impacting women of color with unemployment rates for Latinas at 1.6 times, Black women at 1.5 times, and Asian women at 1.4 times higher than white men.

In research and faculty positions, women often take on additional responsibilities in their departments, leaving less time to conduct research and publish than their male counterparts.[5] Women faculty juggle multiple responsibilities, shouldering greater teaching loads, committee participation, mentoring roles, and other service duties often not merited in the same way as research product.[6],[7] With the transition to online coursework and increase in students’ needs outside of the classroom, these supplemental roles require an even larger time investment. This work plays an important role in academia and in broadening participation, but is often not valued or even considered in merit-based assessments.

Women researchers, especially those early in their careers, experienced a decline in their share of publications since the start of the pandemic, which may lead to long-term impacts on their careers.6 First authorship among women declined 23 percent compared to publications in the same journal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.1 Additionally, as a result of the pandemic, women faculty may be conducting less research, participating in fewer collaborations, and have less capacity to engage in professional events.[8] Women make up just 18 percent of tenure/tenure-track faculty in U.S. colleges of engineering,[9] and if left unaddressed, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the research workforce may follow women throughout their careers.

NASEM’s report provides initial data that women are experiencing an increased workload and decreased productivity, research hours, authorship status, and conference attendance.[10] Additionally, institutional supports put in place during the public health crisis, including work-from-home policies and extensions, are likely to widen the academic advancement gap for women.10 Any mitigation measures must align with the needs of the most impacted – especially  women of color. Due to the limited data available and the ongoing crisis, we urge you to continue studying this issue and put meaningful, corrective measures in place, including a COVID-19 impact statement, extension of deadlines, and flexibility in carryover funds from year to year.4,8,[11] Support for women in the research workforce must be addressed both at the institutional and funding level.

Women are leaving the workforce at disproportionate numbers, largely due to increased caretaking responsibilities across the board – a trend we are seeing broadly in academia, especially in non-tenure track positions.10 Additionally, women in academia incur greater caretaking responsibilities within their departments. It is essential that we fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on women’s workload, reframe what work we deem has merit, and put proportional supports in place to support and keep women in research. We request answers to the following questions:

1)    What data are NSF – either through the NASEM working group or directly – collecting on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, and particularly women of color, researchers? What data are NSF collecting on the impact of researchers at different career stages and positions within research institutions?

a.     How will NSF address the findings, incorporate proposed interventions, and disseminate the results of the NASEM working group investigation?

2)    Historically, academia loses early career women faculty at disproportionate rates. How has NSF supported the retention of women faculty? What changes, if any, has NSF made as a result of COVID-19 to support the retention of women faculty?

3)    The National Science Board is currently revisiting its Broader Impacts criterion. Has the agency considered integrating criteria that value all work and/or options specific to addressing the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?

a.     How can Congress help support these efforts?

4)    Has NSF extended deadlines or added optional COVID-19 impact statements to address the toll the pandemic has taken on applicants for program and grant applications?

a.     If so, how did NSF decide which programs would be eligible for these measures?

b.     How long after the public health crisis has been resolved does the NSF plan to extend any mitigation measures? 

5)    How does NSF plan to use the research relief funds from the American Rescue Plan? Will any of these funds be used to implement mitigation measures?

6)    What percentage of research proposals were submitted by and awarded to women, both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic? What percentage of research funding dollars were awarded to women, and what was the average amount awarded to women – before and during the COVID-19 pandemic? During these time periods, what was the average amount awarded to men? Please provide all data disaggregated by race/ethnicity.

7)    How have best practices to support the research workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic been shared across science funding agencies?

8)    What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on other undergraduate research opportunities, particularly undergraduate research opportunities geared toward broadening participation for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM within NSF’s purview?

9)    What can Congress do to help NSF address these issues?

We cannot afford to cede ground in the progress we have made in diversifying STEM fields. We look forward to working with you and your partners across federal science agencies to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our nation’s research workforce.











[10] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.