A Lost Generation?


While the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for global autism research, early career researchers have been particularly vulnerable to the impact of the pandemic on job security and career development. Loss of productivity from this pool of young investigators who drive future breakthroughs impedes research discoveries.

In a study capturing the challenges facing early career autism researchers, neuroscientist Kim Carpenter, Ph.D., an investigator at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, provided insights into the effects of COVID-19 on research studies, and on investigators’ productivity, training, and mental health. The study showed that autism researchers in the earliest phases of their career, specifically postdoctoral fellows through individuals in assistant professor (or equivalent) positions, have been particularly vulnerable to long-lasting effects of pandemic-related disruptions, which may limit their ability to continue as autism researchers.

Of the 150 early career researchers included in the study’s survey data, 85% reported reductions in productivity. The biggest impacts included difficulty recruiting study participants, increased needs at home, and personal mental health. In fact, the study noted a “three-fold increase in burnout,” and suggested that supports, such as funding, flexibility, and tenure extensions, are needed to help ensure autism research does not suffer from a lost generation of researchers.

“Future scientific discoveries rely on well-trained, motivated, engaged, and productive researchers,” said Carpenter. “To advance our understanding of autism, it’s critical that early career clinicians and scientists get the support, flexibility, and resources they need to keep at it. We cannot lose this generation of scientists.”