Adapting to the 'new normal': is remote research here to stay?

Updated: Jan 28

Katie Fegan reflects on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the UK’s academic research scene

In the world of academia, experimental research sits firmly at the forefront of scientific and technological innovation. But what happens to research institutions when their members find themselves unexpectedly—and indefinitely—evicted from the laboratory following a global health crisis?

Postgraduate and early-career researchers have faced unprecedented disruptions to their work in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are typically employed through short, fixed-term contracts; many feared that the virus would not only derail time-sensitive projects, but would also prompt a hiring freeze in an increasingly oversaturated job market. With all non-essential experimental work forced to a halt, researchers were tasked with maintaining productivity away from the bench. Now, seven months since UK universities first entered lockdown, it is time to reflect on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the country’s academic research scene.

Features such as Chemistry World’s ‘Chemists Amid Coronavirus’ offer insight into some of the practices adopted by research teams during the pandemic. Unable to collect new data, many used the unexpected respite from practical work to write existing data into research papers and grants. Meanwhile, others turned to technology as a means to contribute to science: webinars, podcasts, and even virtual reality-based learning environments have been developed to disseminate research and offer virtual training. The result? By shifting focus away from the lab, researchers have had the unique opportunity to learn new interdisciplinary skills. From coding in Python to creating your very own science blog, these resources are set to boost employability and generate higher quality research outcomes in the long-term.

The distribution of this content via social media, most notably on Twitter, has expanded pre-existing virtual communities to far beyond the reach of any institution. Whilst this is clearly beneficial for scientific collaboration, hashtags such as #BlackinSTEM and #WomeninSTEM continues to provide minority researchers with a much-needed platform for networking. The online community has also offered support to researchers during a time of uncertainty and physical isolation.

International conferences required radical changes to their format in response to sustained lockdowns and social distancing. However, the switch to virtual meetings has left some questioning the need for physical symposia going forward. Too often, early career researchers are prevented from attending major conferences due to the cost of travel and registration. In addition, many in-person events unintentionally discriminate against the needs of disabled academics. Live streaming and archiving presentations would ensure that cutting-edge research reaches the widest possible audience. Furthermore, less travel would dramatically reduce academia’s carbon footprint, arguably a necessary step in the fight against climate change.

As universities reopen their doors for the upcoming academic year, it is clear that research institutions have a social responsibility to integrate remote working into academic culture permanently, at least in some capacity. Of course, working remotely will never fully replace the need to obtain experimental data in the lab. Some will maintain that networking at physical conferences inspires ideas in a way that Zoom could never hope to emulate. Importantly, prolonged isolation from university support networks will have devastating consequences for mental health and wellbeing.

The events of 2020 have demonstrated that academic productivity is not, as was perhaps previously thought, confined to the four walls of the laboratory. Instead, the pandemic has provided some well-needed food for thought on aspects of the old system that are, in many ways, long overdue a change. Moving forward, universities must embrace these changes to academic culture as their employees continue to navigate life through the midst of a global crisis.

From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020

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