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Almost four years ago I asked Are there "gig economy" resources in academic research? Are they fundable?. Now that much of the world and its academe has endured pandemic and lock-down, I wonder if things have changed in terms of research.

Question: Have there been any hiring practice shifts in academia which allow for non-colocated research positions, either full time or part-time? In other words, the worker remains in one location (e.g. city, country) but is hired to participate in a research group associated with a different location. These might include some kind of "adjunct research position" (if such a construct is possible) , postdoctoral positions or even, yes gig-economy-like contracts to participate in research.

It may be too soon for any wide-scale surveys of such changes to have been done or documented, so if there is evidence of a significant change in one or more large research institutions (e.g. a university), or a policy update in a funding institution that would be enough for an answer for the purposes of this question.

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    I think we are probably not far enough out of 'lockdown' for things to be clear yet. I am aware of various instances of this, for example where people have started a new job but not (yet) been able to physically relocate. At present, I think there is a general presumption that they will move 'at some point', and nobody has confronted the issue of whether this could become a permanent arrangement.
    – avid
    Jun 26 at 8:31
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    Note that working from a different country generally carries all sorts of tax/employment law implications, and so it seems unlikely this will become an officially-sanctioned mode of work any time soon.
    – avid
    Jun 26 at 8:35
  • @avid yes, if it's within some geographic constraints where conditions of employment are agnostic, then it's not as challenging, but if the person were in a different country and wanted to make use of say health insurance there could be problems if that ended up being travelers insurance. I'm just thinking out loud here, I don't know exactly how that applies, but its why I included "gig-economy-like contracts"
    – uhoh
    Jun 26 at 8:35
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    I think it goes deeper than that - if a university in country A employs you and says that your place of work is in country B, then your employment is likely subject to the employment laws (minimum wage, safety compliance, grievance procedures...) and tax rules of country B. (If this weren't true, dodgy employers would channel all employment contracts through some country with minimal workers' rights.) Compliance becomes a major headache and legal risk.
    – avid
    Jun 26 at 8:45
  • @avid yes I see, so I've asked for examples of changes rather than "What are potential problems with X?" in order to flush out ways in which these problems might have been addressed or somehow creatively avoided. The pandemic is "work in progress"...
    – uhoh
    Jun 26 at 9:09
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In my university the emphasis is now on the transition back into the university. This is more complicated then expected, so there is no capacity left for developing new arrangements. So now there are lots of ad hoc arrangements that are expected to be temporary, but there has been no change in the main arrangements. I would expect that it will take a long time before that changes; the backlog is just too big.

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I'll focus on the "gig" aspect primarily.

I doubt that this will occur and sincerely hope that it doesn't. The problem is that the gig economy is explicitly exploitive of its workers. It is designed that way, actually.

Those who try to make a living as an adjunct (most commonly in teaching courses), need to juggle around five different positions in order to make a minimal living. The pay is incredibly low in the US and there are no guaranteed benefits for part time workers. No health coverage. No pension. No say in university policies unless there is a union.

Some people teach as adjuncts because they already have a highly paid position elsewhere and just want some connection to students and faculty. For them, the money (or lack of it) means nothing. Some of them might get involved in research with other faculty, but don't depend on that for income. It is a hobby in some sense, though I know people who do it well. The "win" for them is in the connections, nothing more.

To try to extend this to a research career, juggling several gigs, seems impossible. The problem, at base, is that it is difficult to do real research on a part time basis. If you are working on a problem (I'm thinking math, actually), you don't normally turn off your brain to move on to the next gig after the two hours you've allocated to this gig. So, you wind up self-exploiting if you really do the research right and the employer is probably counting on that.

There are some positions that might be available in grant funded existing labs, especially for specialists. These are more likely to be short term, rather than part time, I'd think. Hired for a particular task within a larger one. But that has always been a possibility. And there is no possibility it can be done remotely in many fields.


To expand to the other aspects of the question, not that in some fields you don't need to be co-located to do research together. Many of my papers are with widely separated (several continents) colleagues. What is needed is the ability to communicate and that is possible now. But my university wouldn't have been willing to hire any of my co authors unless they moved to this location. One of the reasons has to do with law. But the bigger issue is that a university has a diverse mission. Even R1 universities have a teaching mission, including undergraduate in almost all cases. That is much harder to arrange remotely and still fulfill all employment regulations. And again, it is a special problem for part time work (in US) as such work seldom comes with the normal benefits that let you build a career in a non-exploitive way. I'd guess some of this will/does occur, but don't expect it to become standard.


Finally note that one of the key characteristics of a university is that it is a community. It is why universities want students (and faculty) back on campus as early as can be arranged. Partaking of that community is extremely difficult at a distance and impossible for a gig faculty worker. Thus, for students, the "college experience" is lost at a distance and the collaboration "serendipity" of the coffee lounge is lost for faculty. These are very important, even if somewhat intangible.

There is little joy or satisfaction in a completely transactional relationship.

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    I know a lot of folks as for advice here, but I've asked "Have there been..." to look for ways challenges have been addressed rather than asking "What are the potential challenges?" (as mentioned on in this comment). Is it possible to add something along those lines as well? Thanks!
    – uhoh
    Jun 26 at 14:11

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