Long-term leave, often parental leave, can have a huge impact on scientists’ careers. It often coincides with a precarious early career stage, where short-term contracts are the norm and competition for permanent faculty jobs is fierce.
For those taking long-term absences, projects have to be paused, and momentum is lost. Or experiments are left in the care of another scientist, who might change the project’s direction or be reluctant to relinquish ownership once the person on leave is back at the bench.
The Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England, has tackled this problem by hiring a dedicated staff member—called a roving researcher—to temporarily manage a project of an early-career biologist or chemist who is on long-term leave, to ensure continuity.
“Taking parental leave has a huge impact on someone on a short-term contract, who needs to keep up the momentum of work so that they can have publications,” explains Melanie Stammers, the scientist who has taken on the roving-researcher role. “That’s how they’re going to succeed and get their next job.”
The problem of leave for early-career scientists is well known. In 2017, the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law published a report based on surveys of US-based postdoctoral scholars about their experiences of becoming parents. The resulting report, Parents in the Pipeline, painted a damning picture: parents were often pressured to return to work early and given confusing advice about leave policies. Some were even fired or quit because of hostile principal investigators.
According to the Parents in the Pipeline report, over half of US institutions offered no paid maternity leave to postdoc employees, while 74% of institutions offered no paid maternity leave to externally funded postdocs. Several institutions did not even provide the 12 weeks of federally-mandated unpaid leave, the report says.
Other countries, particularly in Europe, have longer statutory parental-leave policies than the US. In the UK, employees can take up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of which are paid by the employer. But even when leave is available, postdocs and other early-career researchers can lose research momentum or their publications can be delayed when they take a break.
At the Babraham Institute, a life sciences research institute, the idea for the roving-researcher program emerged in 2018, says Cheryl Smythe, head of strategic research development at Babraham. She saw a gap—substitutes were hired to cover parental leave for those in “professional” roles like principal investigators or administrators. But researchers on short-term contracts—like graduate students or postdocs—would just have their funding paused and then restarted once they returned. Often the scientific process was interrupted to the detriment of their research and publishing.
One possible solution was to hire someone to take over a scientist’s research when they were out. But that left the unattractive possibility of having to constantly recruit short-term replacements. So Smythe came up with the idea to hire a roving researcher—a staff member who could help cover for whoever was out.
In early 2020, Smythe found her roving researcher in Stammers. Stammers was already working in the Biological Chemistry department at the institute and had previous experience as a research scientist as a postdoc and in industry. She also had personal experience with the career changes that happen once you become a parent: when she had her second child, she couldn’t secure a place in the day care where she worked. So she left her job. “I didn’t work again for 18 years,” she says.
When Stammers did return to work, it was to short-term contracts that she felt weren’t taking her anywhere. So she applied to be the first roving researcher at Babraham, which initially was guaranteed for only a year. “Taking a 1-year position where I was going to learn a lot of different techniques was going to be advantageous to me. Especially if I was going to be spat out into the job market again.” But that didn’t happen. Stammers is now permanently employed in this roving-research role, and Smythe hopes the institute can recruit more roving researchers in the future.
Melanie Eckersley-Maslin was a Babraham postdoc and pregnant with her second child when she learned that Smythe was setting up the roving-researcher program. “I put my hand up to be the guinea pig tested for it,” she says. “It went really fantastically. It was nice as I sort of had a pair of hands in the lab and I was able to stay a bit more involved intellectually” because Stammers and Eckersley-Maslin kept in touch during her leave.
The roving researcher helps alleviate any worries about lab politics or professional competition causing problems on a return from leave, Eckersley-Maslin says. Often, “if people go on 6 months leave, a postdoc gets brought in to look after the project in their absence,” she says. But the new scientist might take ownership of the project and be unwilling to relinquish control once the original researcher returns, she says. “When the person comes back from leave, there’s a bit of a conflict there. Whose project is it now? Or they might have taken it in a direction that the other person didn’t want. So it can be quite messy.”
Eckersley-Maslin is quick to point out that in her first pregnancy, a new postdoc in the lab helped maintain her project. The handover was smooth and the experience positive. But having a roving researcher was even better: “I’ve had one maternity leave with, and one without. And the one with the scheme was by far a lot better,” she says. “I felt more connected.”
Stammers has now worked with 9 scientists on leave, usually for around 6 months, she says. At any one time she can be covering for two or perhaps three researchers. She has learned many new techniques and honed her time management skills.
Her goal is to have at least 2 weeks’ overlap before the researcher goes on leave. This ensures Stammers has a good idea about the experiments she will be taking over. “The hardest thing is getting people to be really specific about protocols and writing good protocols,” she says. She also plans a gradual handover once they return.
Stammers doesn’t try to fully take over a project. “The aim is to maintain the momentum to do critical tasks that keep things going,” Stammers says. Some researchers want to be closely involved in what Stammers is doing when they are on leave, and others are more hands off, she says.
Smythe says that she has received a lot of interest from other institutions in the UK and beyond about how the roving-researcher role was implemented, especially after she wrote a blog post about it. “Organizations have been in touch with us,” though Smythe hasn’t heard of another program that has been funded and is up and running—yet.
Jessica Lee, director of the Pregnant Scholar Initiative, is impressed by the program. “This is a fantastic idea that will make leave more accessible in practice,” says Lee, who is also a senior staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law. “By ensuring the work can continue, such programs reduce the risk a postdoc’s career will be derailed by taking time away due to childbearing or illness. Policies of this sort keep the science moving forward and the workforce healthier—a win for all involved.”
Lee hopes that US institutions take note, especially for externally funded postdocs who are least likely to have paid leave. “Roving researchers are a good solution for institutions looking to improve their postdocs’ quality of life, diversity, and retention,” she says.
Eckersley-Maslin has since moved to Australia, where she is a group leader at the University of Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Her experience of the roving-researcher position inspired her to help implement a similar role in her new job. That program will provide a researcher up to A$10,000 to hire someone to cover for them while on leave.
Now that she is running her own lab, Eckersley-Maslin sees the extended value of having a roving researcher. “It’s not just the person on leave that’s affected. It’s also the whole lab.” Smythe agrees. The roving researcher program benefits everyone, she says. “It’s ensuring that the research is delivered and competitive.”
Katharine Sanderson is a freelance journalist in Cornwall, UK.
This article was updated on March 14, 2022, to correct the Babraham Institute’s affiliation. Babraham is an independent research institute, not one associated with the University of Cambridge.