Furthering science in the age of COVID-19
Little by little, data is emerging that is helping to paint a picture of how the pandemic is affecting different segments of the population.
After weeks of lockdowns universities across the world have re-opened their doors, but business is far from usual. Even in institutions that aren’t battling on-campus outbreaks, COVID-19 has made many things take longer to accomplish, thanks to new protocols and productivity-zapping pandemic anxiety.
Now, a new article in Nature paints a picture of what it’s like to “do science” in Brazil, Germany, the UK, and India during a pandemic. In each country, scientists share stories of hindered research, increased safety measures, and canceled or postponed projects.
João Santana da Silva, an immunologist at the University of São Paulo in Ribeirão Preto, Brazil, tells Nature it has been “impossible ” to continue research, with labs “struggling” to maintain animal lineages and live parasite strains.
“The loss in research and human resources is irreparable,” João says.
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In the UK, campus outbreaks are surging, with some ministers claiming the situation is “getting out of control,” University World News reports. The impending sense that shutdowns are on the horizon leaves lab occupants in a quagmire, unsure if projects should be started, continued, or shelved.
Germany appears to be faring better — but classes start later there, on October 1. Lectures begin in November, and for now, most scientists have returned to their labs.
There is worry new restrictions will impact students — particularly undergrads who, in a normal year, would participate in excursions and field studies. This is an important part of the curriculum that deepens a student’s understanding of a topic. There is also evidence that out-of-the-lecture hall learning can boost confidence and promote diversity in STEM.
COVID-19 has created challenges for scientists, who have had to cancel or postpone projects due to new safety restrictions. We’ve seen this in universities, as well as in research institutions. Earlier this year, CERN, the world’s largest particle-physics experiment located near Geneva, Switzerland had to suspend its upgrade work on the Large Hadron Collider due to the pandemic.
For many students in India, a lack of reliable internet has been a hindrance. For the time being, Indian universities are only open to researchers and grad students to carry out lab work Nature says, leaving everyone else to learn remotely. While some universities are sending materials to students who cannot participate in online classes, the lack of internet is creating disparities.
At the Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences in Delhi, for example, moving classes online means undergraduate students in the physics program have to go without lab lessons in thermodynamics, electricity, and magnetism.
There’s also evidence that the widespread global shutdowns in March hit researchers with care-giving responsibilities particularly hard.
In May, Nature published an analysis citing several researchers, including Megan Frederickson, an ecologist at the University of Toronto who looked at preprint servers to determine if women published less in spring — and the early data suggested they were, across all disciplines.
Even before spring lockdowns, female scientists published fewer papers than men. Over the past 60 years, only about 27 per cent of all STEM-related research papers have been authored by women of all races, according to Northeastern University — but that number has been rising steadily.
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In 1955, women authored about 13 per cent of all papers. By 2005, that number had climbed to 35 per cent.
But the pandemic could be erasing these gains, and time will only tell how deep — and long-lasting — the impact will be.
It’s also not yet clear how COVID-19 is affecting the work of scientists with intersecting identities. Such findings would be important to add to the growing body of pandemic-analysis pieces, given we already know that LGBTQ, Black, and Indigenous individuals, and individuals with a combination of these and other identities, have been some of the hardest-hit groups amid the pandemic.
Some scientists can conduct research at home but many cannot — especially those who are engaged in clinical trials or who are working with live animals.
“Animals need to be looked after, and breeding lines must be kept going. Many of these are unique and can’t be regenerated,” Mike Turner, director of science at Wellcome, a research-funding charity in London, told Nature in April.
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And for the researchers and undergrad students who have the technology and equipment to work from home, some may not find the environment conducive to learning. This may be especially true for individuals who are isolating in unsupportive environments or for disabled scientists who are forced to work with lesson plans that aren’t accessible.
Little by little, data is emerging that is helping to paint a picture of how the pandemic is affecting different segments of the population. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, an increasing number of large and small-scale surveys — as well as peer-reviewed research — will come to light, allowing for increasingly accurate analysis.
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