University Research: A Time of Disparate Change

During the pandemic, the research ecosystem has undergone a complex transformation, which will necessitate a multifaceted response, write Peter Schiffer and Jay Walsh.

August 5, 2020
 
 
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In late March of this year, almost every functional aspect of university research changed dramatically across the nation. Conferences were canceled, travel was postponed and most universities were driven into a new mode of remote instruction. Typically, the only personnel on campuses were those with essential duties and those responding directly to the pandemic. Research was shifted to new modes of operation on a time scale that contrasted sharply with the usual glacial pace of academic change.

Researchers are now cautiously returning to their campuses to re-engage with resources and facilities unavailable in their homes. This restoration of research is a forerunner to the greater reopening in the coming months involving residential instruction at many colleges and universities. In that context, however, all stakeholders must recognize both how broadly and how unevenly the landscape for research has changed.

University researchers are known for their high levels of creativity and resourcefulness, and these strengths have led to a resilient response. Scholars have adapted their work habits toward finishing old manuscripts and proposing new projects. They have made flexible use of resources at hand. Many of them have also directly addressed the crisis itself through development of therapeutics, engineering of PPE and other materials, or research into many facets of the pandemic. And, most importantly, they have paid special attention to the teaching and mentoring needs of students and other trainees.

At the present moment, however, roughly four months from when campuses were largely emptied across the United States, university scholars have vastly different experiences both behind them and ahead of them.

A computational scientist might have been able to continue work from home almost uninterrupted, while a bench scientist might have had lab research totally stopped. The latter now may need to restart experiments from where they were cut off or possibly repeat weeks or even months of preparation.

A scholar who studies live theater or a performing musician who requires an ensemble may still be many months away from continuing their work. By contrast, a researcher who needs library access to examine manuscripts directly may already have that access restored -- as long as the manuscripts are available in local collections. If the manuscripts happen to be in an undigitized collection on the other side of the globe, separation from that critical resource could stretch much longer. Similarly, the archaeologist, the glaciologist and the ethnographer all may face long disruptions of access to their work and concomitant sidetracking of research plans.

Even researchers in the health sciences, who have been appropriately celebrated for their rapid and often heroic efforts to alleviate the pandemic, will see different vistas depending on whether their specialty is connected to work on COVID-19 or focuses on unrelated topics. Research involving human subjects has been especially impacted, but those researchers also have experienced disparate impacts. While many studies that can be conducted remotely have restarted, or perhaps were never stopped, studies requiring close human contact largely could not proceed as planned and may be postponed indefinitely for subjects who are particularly vulnerable or in an environment that is not amenable to social distancing. Furthermore, some research may be irretrievably damaged. For example, longitudinal behavioral studies may have significant gaps, or perhaps the pandemic has affected subjects in ways that render initial assumptions invalid. In contrast, some researchers have found new directions emerging from the pandemic, encouraged by the opportunity for impact and the newly available grant funding targeted toward shortening and alleviating the virus’s damage.

Separate from their research specialties, individual researchers have had widely differentiated experiences over the past four months.

Those who have children at home may have confronted larger barriers to their productivity than those without them. That impact has been reported to fall disproportionately on women, and it may well continue until schools and daycare centers return to regular operation. Researchers with particular susceptibilities to COVID-19, those with anxiety about health risks and those sharing living spaces with similarly vulnerable people will all face a much more challenging landscape for advancing their work in the coming months -- as will collaborators and trainees who depend on the people who are directly impacted.

Sadly, younger scholars and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged may be especially harmed by the pandemic in that they may have more limited resources to allow them to work effectively away from their campuses. Coupled with a bleak academic job market, such factors could impede long-term efforts to diversify the academy.

A Shifting Landscape

Aside from individual impacts on researchers and their programs and projects, the broader research landscape has also shifted considerably in the past four months.

International collaboration is now hindered by multiple travel restrictions applied unevenly to citizens of different nations, and to new impediments to obtaining visas. Simultaneously, federal agencies are increasingly acting on heightened concerns regarding the threat of foreign interference in research. University researchers have been indicted, agencies have tightened safeguards and Congress is proposing new regulations. If adopted, new rules could significantly redraw assumptions about international cooperation and the open nature of fundamental scientific research.

At the same time, university support has been included in federal relief packages to partially address the financial toll of the pandemic, and more relief specifically for research is possible. Further, a bipartisan group in Congress has proposed a vast expansion of the mission of the National Science Foundation, with a large multiplier of its budget. All this support is accompanied by a broad recognition of the crucial role that universities have played in pandemic responses and will play in addressing future challenges that the nation will face.

Each of these global shifts by themselves would be considered transformational to university research in a normal time. That they are happening during a global reckoning with the realities of racism, and along with the social upheaval of the pandemic, makes them all the more profound.

As we move into the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should appreciate the breadth of change across the university research landscape that has happened in such a short time. Rather than a broad and uniform shift, it is a highly heterogeneous shuffling of circumstances that will take months and perhaps years to settle into a new normal. And it will only be made more complex by a possible resurgence of infections or geopolitical changes that are easy to imagine in our near future.

The accompanying challenges to so many university researchers will require action, but the wide variation and the global shifts preclude a one-size-fits-all response. Indeed, a decentralized and nonuniform approach, guided by principles, may be best suited to avoid exacerbating the externally driven heterogeneities. Researchers, along with university leaders, research sponsors and government regulators, must consider the complexity of recent change as they continue to develop the spectacular graduates and produce the transformational discoveries that have made America’s universities a model of higher education for the world.

Bio

Peter Schiffer is the Frederick W. Beinecke Professor of Applied Physics at Yale University and is serving as a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities. Jay Walsh is the interim vice president for economic development and innovation for the University of Illinois system and is serving as a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities.

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