Going to conferences and on other research trips can be difficult or impossible for researchers who have children.

Researchers with children often have to stay at home

Svenska 2018-01-31

Opting out of meritorious travel or paying for the babysitter’s flights and hotel room out of your own pocket. These are the options for many researchers with children. Despite increasing expectations in terms of international contacts, there are limited opportunities to claim childcare allowances.

Researchers are increasingly expected to work internationally. Conferences and workshops are important arenas for disseminating results as well as for establishing new partnerships and maintaining old ones.

Kristina Lundqvist is professor of software engineering at Mälardalen University in Västerås. She is single and has nine-year-old twins. Since becoming a professor ten years ago she has felt that it is almost impossible for her to go to conferences or on other short research trips.

“I have opted out of almost all foreign travel in the past ten years. On a couple of occasions I have had a babysitter and travelled somewhere for the day. This involved flying at the crack of dawn, having the meeting, travelling back in the afternoon and arriving home late in the evening.”

Paid for out of her own pocket

On two occasions she has paid for a relative to come with her on a trip abroad in order to serve as a babysitter. But having to pay for three flights and a hotel room is a considerable personal expense. And she has not applied for grants for this type of additional cost.

“No, I haven’t tried. It has not been clear to me whether there is even a grant to apply for. In any case, there is no low-hanging fruit.”

Kristina Lundqvist says that being less visible internationally leads to fewer invitations to hold seminars, but also impairs a researcher’s chances of finding new partners and creating new projects. The difficulty she has in terms of travelling thus has a detrimental impact on her career.

“The academic career is based on what you have on your CV. And it’s clear that, in any case, your career does not progress if you almost exclusively stay at home at your own university.”

Research and parenthood a forgotten issue

Of course, the difficulties of combining an academic career with young children affect both women and men. However, as women continue to take on greater general responsibility for day-to-day childcare, this can, at least partly, be seen as a gender equality issue. Annica Black-Schaffer is professor of theoretical physics at Uppsala University. She calls for a broader discussion of parenthood within academia.

“There is a lot of talk in Sweden and in academia about increased gender equality. But we often forget the issue of parenthood and research. I am convinced that much more can be done to make it easier for researchers with children.”

“This involves, for example, more flexible use of research funding, more realistic compensation for research time in the event of longer periods of parental leave, but also making it easier to travel when you have children.”

Said no to many conferences

Annica Black-Schaffer is herself the mother of two children and has said no to many conferences and research exchanges. For Annica and her husband, who is also a researcher, travel is a constant challenge. Since they had their children – now aged six and nine – they never stay for the full length of a conference and have not been on any longer research trips.

“I have tried to talk to Swedish donors about grants to cover the cost of taking children, but they have always said no. At some point my husband and I needed to go to a joint meeting and asked if we could get the babysitter paid for. The answer was ‘no, we do not fund that’”, says Annica Black-Schaffer.

However, each year, when the scientific organisation the American Physical Society sends out invitations to international conferences, it is possible for all participants to apply for funding for childcare, she states.

“People talk about how the United States is worse than Sweden when it comes to parenthood, but in this respect they are often better.”

Hardest for foreign researchers

More and more foreign researchers are working at Swedish universities. For them, the issue of childcare can be particularly problematic. Agatha de Boer, associate professor in climate research at Stockholm University, grew up in South Africa and came to Sweden in 2010. She has no family or relatives in Sweden and is the sole guardian of her three-year-old daughter.

If she wants to go to conferences and on other trips, she has to bring her daughter with her and pay for an extra flight and babysitting. When Agatha de Boer applied to the Swedish Research Council to use project funds for additional travel expenses, she was told that this was not allowed.

The big expenses have led to her abstaining from relevant conferences and to declining invitations to lecture. She is worried that, in the long term, this will harm her future career prospects.

Give up on the next step in your career

“If I am not seen at conferences and delivering lectures, I might as well give up on the next step in my career. To become a professor, I will need other researchers to testify that I am internationally recognised in my field.

But travelling is not just about satisfying a personal interest or caring for your own career. The university is also pushing for all researchers to have an international presence”, says Agatha de Boer.

“Universities expect us as researchers to contribute to new partnerships with other universities and other countries. That doesn’t happen if we are sitting at home in our office.”

Grants for travel expenses in several countries

Sweden is regarded as a leading country in terms of gender equality, but Agatha de Boer believes that we are a bit behind in this area. She has compiled a list of the regulations and policies of foreign research councils and universities.

Financial support is offered by research funding bodies for the additional costs of children in conjunction with research trips in several countries, including the United Kingdom (National Environmental Research Council), Canada (Canada Natural Science and Engineering Research Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council).

Agatha de Boer states that the EU (European Research Council) can also provide grants for travel expenses for children, provided that the host country allows this, and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research is currently conducting a review of the rules in the Netherlands.

Hoping for a change in the rules

“In several places, the rules have been changed recently. I hope that this will happen in Sweden as well.”

Many professional parents find it difficult to make everyday life fit together. The question is whether scientists need specific support to allow them to travel and, if so, who should be responsible for childcare. This is not something that Kristina Lundqvist has thought about more closely.

“My children are my own responsibility. I have struggled on and made the best of the situation. But today there are so many family constellations, and single parents are not uncommon. It is perhaps time to modernise and adapt the system to new types of families”, she states.

Text: Henrik Lundström
Photo: Johan Gunseus / TT