Dani Guzman, Ex Libris
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the world, and research institutions have certainly felt its impact as well. Yet, while the coronavirus has brought many challenges to academic research, it has also created opportunities for research to improve moving forward.
Two members of the Ex Libris Research Management Advisory Council — Lorna Thomson, Director of the University of Edinburgh Research Office, and Scott Mills, Associate Vice President of Research at the University of Montana — recently shared their thoughts about how the pandemic has affected the research community. Here are some of the key challenges and opportunities they identified.
Universities have become more open with each other, and data are being shared for the public good — leading to a more collaborative way of working.
The pandemic has kept researchers from physical lab spaces, delaying projects by months in some cases.
“We have researchers who weren’t able to access a lab in several months,” Thomson says. After closing its facilities in March, Thomson’s institution has taken a phased approach to reopening, starting in July. “Researchers are now on a cycle of trying to catch up on their deliverables,” she observed.
Social distancing has added to the cost of research projects, forcing institutions to make difficult choices.
As a Professor of Wildlife Biology and head of the Mills Lab, an interdisciplinary research group focused on wildlife conservation, Mills does a lot of field research in remote areas. One of his research projects required an 800-mile drive each way for a team of six researchers. Normally, he would have been able to use a single truck at a budgeted cost of $1,500 for this project. However, social distancing rules called for no more than one person per vehicle, meaning each team member required his or her own truck — which added $7,500 to the cost of the research. “We got a lot of pushback about that,” he said.
The pandemic has made the funding landscape for research more unstable.
The University of Edinburgh covers about 72 percent of the cost of research via external research funding, Thomson said. This means nearly 30 percent of the cost of research has to come from other funding sources including international student fees.
A key source of income that many universities have relied on to help support research is tuition from international students. Yet, international enrollment is expected to decline as fewer people travel during the pandemic. “COVID has exposed the unsustainability of that model,” she noted. “There are some real flaws in the system that institutions have been patching over for years.” Additionally, “Many charities have seen their donations drop off dramatically,” Thomson said. “The question is, will they be able to continue funding research projects?”
Public trust in the work of researchers has increased.
While the pandemic has wreaked havoc with research timelines and raised questions about possible funding sources, there have been some positive outcomes as well. “One big upside has been that public trust in science and its important role in our society has increased,” Mills said, noting that this recognition should result in greater public investment in research in the years to come.
The pandemic has brought a spirit of collaboration to research institutions.
Collaboration between two or more institutions often becomes bogged down by discussions about who owns the intellectual property stemming from research projects. “During COVID, that seems to have almost disappeared,” Thomson said. “Universities have become more open with each other, and data are being shared for the public good — leading to a more collaborative way of working. Seeing data flow between institutions without contractual barriers or IP discussions has been really heartening.”
COVID-19 gives institutions a chance to reimagine what’s possible moving forward.
The pandemic has prompted university leaders to rethink traditional structures and consider new ways of doing things that are better for everyone involved. For instance, Mills said, the pandemic has revealed that it can be harder for women with young children to be as productive working from home. “When you realize how different groups are being affected disproportionately by the pandemic, that causes you to think about fairness in general and how to address structural barriers that we didn’t know existed before the virus,” he said.
Universities traditionally have been slow to change, Thomson said, but the pandemic showed that rapid change is possible when institutions feel a sense of urgency — and there is no longer any excuse for inaction.
Before COVID, shifting everything online “would have taken two years and numerous committees,” she said. “We were able to do it in two weeks.”
She concluded: “The pandemic gives us a chance to improve how we respond to challenges going forward. We have an opportunity to reset completely. That’s very attractive.”
Dr. Lorna Thomson and Dr. Scott Mills serve on the Ex Libris Research Management Advisory Council.
August 25, 2020