As many people scientists have been meeting their colleagues digitally. Photo/Credit: NickyLloyd/iStock
With our survey among Lindau Alumni and young scientists, we were able to gain an insight into the impact of the pandemic on scientific work. In addition to the shift in research focus, COVID-19 also changed many working processes and the daily lives of scientists. The impact of Corona on scientific careers and career prospects for scientists, as for everyone else, depends on the type of work, the region, the research focus and the resulting activities, the personal circumstances and the career level.
Impact Depends on Many Factors
Those who have children, for example, are heavily burdened with tasks such as childcare and/or home schooling. „When the lockdown in Germany started, my son was 2 years old and I had to shift all of my work into the night. I considered myself a full-time mom and night-time professor. It has been a very sleepless year“, Oliva Merkel, Professor of Drug Delivery at LMU Munich and 2012 Lindau Alumna, gets tired when she remembers the spring of 2020.
Scientists who normally do research in the laboratory cannot simply move to the home office, but had to change their approach significantly, find creative solutions and temporarily dedicate themselves to other tasks. Like Prajwal Mohan Murthy, Lindau Alumnus 2012, working at the University of Chicago: „As an experimentalist, being in the lab is important to making progress. The last year was spent re-analysing old data sets for possible new physics from home.“ That’s what happened to Trevor Tippetts, young scientist at the University of Utah: „It has forced me to be creative with spending time in the lab, working with animals and learning to do most work from home.“
Laboratory Work is not Possible on the Kitchen Table
Difficulties in access to the lab can also delay deadlines or projects – with long-term consequences. „My laboratory belongs to a research institute whose facilities are currently being used for COVID-19 PCR testing. Because of that, my laboratory was one of the last to be allowed to operate again. My dissertation presentation deadline has been postponed, but the impossibility of working in the bench has impaired my work so much I am considering moving into a less experimental area of biophysics in the next steps of my career“, explains Kiyo Costa Higuchi from Brazil who participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. She also points to the specific health threat caused by the virus: „I am constantly exposed to the virus in my workplace, which is a major stress and anxiety trigger that certainly affects my work.“
Biologist Dacquin Kasumba working at the Institut National de Recherche Biomédical, University of Kinshasa, and young scientist 2021 was caught by the restrictions at an unfortunate time. „The pandemic was declared at a time when I was moving countries to extend the impact of my research. The change has been difficult and slow because of the pandemic.“ Also Marcela Alves, 2019 Lindau Alumna from Brazil working in Ghent, Belgium, had to update her projects for the future: „I had plans to start my Ph.D. in 2021 but I don’t want to start a Ph.D. that has a high chance of being online most of the time. I had to postpone this plan due to COVID-19.“
Science in Public
Positively spoken the pandemic brought science to the public’s attention. Fernando Castro Prado from Spain is annoyed by the fact that scientific data are sometimes misrepresented and incomplete in the media: „A source of confusion has been the interchangeable use of terms like positivity rate, cumulative incidence, hospitalisations and the like, when they couldn’t be more different from one another. And when that mistake in the scientific semantics translates into policy, one gets nonsensical rationales for non-optimal measures at press conferences; and when it translates into journalism, one gets exercises of purported punditry that are a disservice to their readers.“ A proposal from the young scientist 2021: „All this, to echo what Barry Barish and Steve Chu said during the 2020 Online Science Days – humankind would benefit from having more science in politics to face our global existential threats, so why not have more scientists in politics?“
Face-to-face Exchange Remains Important
Scientific and personal exchange was carried out completely digitally in many places, which is associated with a lot of work. „Getting busier with lots of online seminar and sharing“, that’s how Pei Meng Woi, 2013 Lindau Alumna in Malaysia, describes her new working routines. But digital work also offers new opportunities, says Vanessa Jane Bukas, researcher at the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin. „There has been a massive shift toward digital platforms for scientific exchange and networking, previously unimagined online tools, creative home-office solutions, etc. It has revolutionised the way we work and our daily routine.“
As everyone else, scientists are missing the direct and uncomplicated talks with their colleagues, like physicist Ioannis Matthaiakakis, 2019 Lindau Alumnus from the Julius Maximilians University Würzburg in Germany: „It made it no longer easy to discuss ideas and problems appearing spontaneously during research. One must always arrange a meeting or at least message someone online first. Before the pandemic, one could simply knock on the door of the other person’s office.“
In Conclusion: A Little Bit of Hope
Teresa Wagner, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Germany, sees the rapid development of vaccines as proof of how successful scientific collaboration can be. „I think the pandemic showed that if many people work together focusing on one specific topic great results can be achieved like seen with the new vaccines. Working in cooperation together instead of competition, is what we should keep in mind also in the future.“