Known Unknowns

The impact of social distancing on the actual process and outcomes of research has not been carefully evaluated or even broadly acknowledged, write Peter Schiffer and Jay Walsh.

October 13, 2020
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As universities settle into the ongoing presence of COVID-19, they are adapting to a new mode of research, one in which masks and strict social distancing are de rigueur. Studies have already documented substantial impacts on specific groups within the research ecosystem, including low-income or underrepresented academics and women scholars. Naturally, the challenges for researchers who are touched directly by the disease and those with significant health risks can also be especially difficult, and many others are feeling the impact on their mental health.

These effects have been measured, they are widely known to faculty and administrators alike, and the university research ecosystem has the opportunity to address them through a range of actions informed by data.

By contrast, the impact of social distancing on the actual process of research has not been carefully evaluated or even broadly acknowledged. Modern university research, especially in STEM fields, is almost always a collaborative social process. In the current circumstance in which researchers must minimize in-person contact with each other, that collaborative enterprise is being shaken to its very core.

Most strikingly, almost all local seminars have gone into a remote mode. Aside from the changed dynamic during presentations, researchers do not have the opportunity for a relaxed meal or coffee with visiting speakers. Such interactions are where academics often probe and evaluate new ideas, leveraging the presence of a scholar from another institution.

Seminars also traditionally play an important pro-social intramural role, providing an opportunity for informal internal communications. Sometimes enhanced with cookies, the brief interlude before or after a talk often serves as a weekly occasion to connect with colleagues, to catch up with the members of another research group and to form community. Similarly, scholarly conferences have gone online, limiting the informal conversations that can be especially valuable to those who are new to a field or to early-career researchers establishing professional networks.

Posing a less obvious set of risks, the development of new trainees is especially vulnerable to pandemic-induced changes in the research routine. While formal classes and some training can proceed online, the informal aspects of research training are broadly diminished. The observational social scientist learning about a new community or the lab scientist being guided through a new hands-on experimental technique will almost always be challenged by a safe social distance.

Just as critical, a team member walking through the lab and noticing that a process looks wrong, or looking over the shoulder at some data and recognizing an issue, has been a normal and important part of how countless experimental researchers have learned their crafts. The opportunities for such encounters are now greatly reduced. While teams can replicate some face-to-face interactions through online collaboration tools, they will have lost a measure of the familiarity and personal connections afforded by regular extended proximity. Members of traditionally underrepresented groups who had already felt excluded under pre-pandemic circumstances may especially feel the impact. All these factors will slow the development and the productivity of tomorrow’s research workforce, and they place the quality of university research training at risk.

For more senior researchers, social distancing precludes the chance to walk into a colleague’s office with a new idea, just to talk it through. Working from home also reduces chance encounters among colleagues on the commuter train, in the parking lot or at the coffee machine, suppressing the serendipitous formation of collaborative ideas. Inevitably, many ideas will not be hatched or fully incubated in these circumstances.

Of course, the impacts of the new modalities of research are not entirely negative. Holding seminars and conferences over video makes them accessible to a broader range of participants. Some researchers might be more inclined to ask questions typed into the chat box, rather than spoken in front of dozens or hundreds of colleagues. Many creative solutions, such as online breakout rooms for poster sessions, have perhaps even improved over traditional models.

Online interactions can sometimes be more comfortable than in-person ones, and some researchers may even prefer this new work environment. In fact, for almost every researcher, certain conversations at work can be more distracting than helpful, and, furthermore, a reduction in commuting and other travel may actually boost productivity. As with so many aspects of pandemic-induced changes, there has been and will continue to be tremendous heterogeneity in the impact on researchers.

While the ways that social distancing is influencing the success and productivity of researchers may be easy to identify, the precise level of the impact and the range of effective responses will require systematic study and experimentation. That said, new sets of questions are becoming clear, even if the answers are unknown. How can we enable the informal conversations and serendipitous interactions, previously driven by personal proximity, that help drive innovation and creativity? How can we ensure that new members of research teams receive a thorough, inclusive and rewarding training experience? How can we best adapt the process of collaborative research to include people who do not ever come into close contact?

The answers should ideally be driven by data, but without question, the effects on research operations are real and the need for a response is urgent. In the absence of data and best practices, every research leader will need to keep an eye on these known unknowns -- and strive to maintain and adapt the complex network of interactions that allows great scholarship to thrive.

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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 also serves as a senior fellow at the Association of American Universities.

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