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March 7, 2021 | Biomolecular

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Back in early 2020, amongst the worthy efforts to halt its spread, the COVID-19 pandemic started wreaking havoc on scientific endeavours all over the world. Critical observations from major telescopes were thwarted. A 32-year bacteria experiment was put on ice, both literally and figuratively. Even NASA was affected, reducing workers to ‘mission essential’ staff only. In the year since, countless studies, trials and careers have been disrupted.

But in causing so much disruption, has the novel coronavirus created career crises for scientists and researchers?

One thing is certain – COVID-19 has not affected all scientists the same way. While some had their research grind to a halt, others have pivoted or have been redirected to support the new global cause – everything from conducting RT-PCR sampling and testing, to SARS-CoV-2 research. There have been both winners and losers as a result. A 2020 study of over 4,500 US- and Europe-based scientists found that 55% reported a decline in total work hours, 27% reported no change, and 18% actually reported an increase in time spent working.

So what have the main effects been?

The effects on equipment-dependent work

It’s no surprise that a researcher’s field of science and its associated equipment could have played a large role in whether their career has been affected. The US- and European-based scientists who reported the largest declines in research time (30-40% below pre-pandemic levels) were those working in fields most dependent on physical laboratories and time-sensitive experiments; including those such as biological sciences, biochemistry and chemical engineering. Meanwhile, those in statistics, mathematics, computer science and economics experienced less disruption.

A survey of Australian-based scientists found that 79.6% had had their research affected by the pandemic. Almost a third of them (28.4%) said that interruptions to the provision of equipment, supplies, and materials was a major factor to their disrupted work. For 51.2% of respondents, an inability to do research remotely was a key factor keeping them from their work. 

The effects of working from home

There’s no doubt stay at home orders have affected millions of careers, including those in science. For  some, lockdown provided time to analyse datasets and write theses. For others, it interrupted experiments as university, state and private labs were shut down for safety. There were also added pressures of working from home if scientists were fortunate enough to do so. The study of US- and Europe-based scientists found that female scientists and those with young dependents 5 years or under were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. While the report is quick to point out these results could be subject to representative oversampling and other factors, the question is raised about how important childcare availability might be proving in the careers of scientists with young dependents.

The effects of travel and social restrictions

Social distancing has been highly effective in protecting people’s health and wellbeing, but it’s also had flow-on effects on scientific efforts. 49.3% of surveyed scientists in Australia said that altered participant recruitment in trials had affected their research. In addition, travel restrictions have affected the ability of researchers to attend conferences and limited the usual flow of international students, as well as the benefits that these global interactions can bring.

The effects of research funding and employment

The source of funding for each scientist’s work is obviously an important factor in all of this. The pandemic has put immense financial pressure on universities across the world, and seen both jobs and research funding dry up as a result. It was estimated that COVID-19 could risk up to $3.5bn of research and development funding per year in Australian universities alone. The concern for many is that as skilled researchers have been furloughed or laid off in both public and private research, it may be difficult to gain this talent back. Major research funders have largely been more resilient to the pandemic, and as such externally funded scientific research has largely been able to continue even with some limitations in place.

The stage of a researcher’s career may also have an impact on how heavily their work has been hit, with research students, postgraduates and junior scientists identified as particularly vulnerable. Early-career researchers have expressed how isolated and frustrating necessary lockdowns have been as they begin their professions, though virtual conferences and online seminars are going some way to provide support.

What does the future hold?

Things are gingerly returning to varying levels of ‘normal’ as vaccines are being rolled out. Laboratories look a little different, as do most workplaces, with social distancing and strict hygiene measures in place. Research and development, and the plans for such, is largely dependent on the country and region in question, with some harder hit by COVID-19 cases than others.

There is room for optimism, though, and it’s certainly not all doom and gloom on the future front. Amidst misinformation and conspiracy theories, peer-reviewed scientific research is providing much-needed stability, clarity and solutions throughout the pandemic. Phrases such as ‘R number’ and ‘PCR testing’ have become part of the public lexicon. And the pandemic has seen a flurry of research on COVID-19, as well as a collaborative breaking-down of traditional barriers to together combat the virus that’s affecting so many lives. Some expect that the plight of those suffering the lingering effects of ‘Long COVID’ might even drive new research and treatments for those relevant illnesses that have long been neglected in the past.

The pre-pandemic trend towards more freely available and accessible research is also rapidly heading into the mainstream. One open repository, medRxiv, went from 1,000 pre-prints in early 2020 to more than 12,000 by October 2020.

As the scientific world shifts towards a more open, democratic environment and as confidence returns, we hope to see a few key changes. More flexible working conditions for scientists and researchers as they return to pre-pandemic productivity. More thoughtful funding and support, to help retain the invaluable skills and experience of scientists who might otherwise be migrating to other industries. And increasing accessibility to laboratory space and equipment, which we’re proud to be directly involved in with our Mic qPCR cycler and Myra liquid handling instrument. The more accessible scientific equipment and support becomes, the better we can support the current and future generation of scientific minds.