As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March in the U.S., many employers moved to a work-from-home model. Researchers, like all other employees in the U.S. economy, faced numerous challenges, including securing groceries, figuring out how to pause projects, learning how to work from home when labs were inaccessible and balancing work with child care and other responsibilities.
But the scientific research community has also experienced some unique problems that could set scientific and medical advances and career progression years behind schedule.
The American Physiological Society (APS) conducted an informal survey asking its members how coronavirus-related closures were affecting their research and career plans and the physiology community overall. The respondents painted a picture of the issues they are facing as laboratory work slowly resumes.
Faculty researchers who responded were very concerned about how the research pause will affect their ability to maintain current—or secure future—federal grant funding. And it may be another three to six months before investigators can start to work with specialized animal strains again, which raises concerns about being able to complete enough work to successfully compete in the next cycle of grant applications. In addition, in many cases during extended lab closures, researchers continued to use their federal grant monies to pay salaries and other ongoing costs. Now, they face budgetary shortfalls as they try to plan for the future.
Coronavirus-related closures have also created significant uncertainty for trainees. Trainees in the sciences are generally defined as undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who have recently completed their doctoral degree. Over half of the trainees in our survey reported that the research pause will likely increase the length of time it will take to complete their training. Because scientific conferences were canceled, many trainees missed out on a major opportunity to present their work to their peers and network with senior researchers—a trend that is likely to continue with meetings expected to be held virtually for the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, both faculty and trainees expressed worries related to the difficulties associated with scheduling interviews, visiting potential new places of employment and navigating a rapidly changing employment and recruitment/hiring landscape.
These challenges are far from over. Research institutions each have unique reopening plans. One respondent said their university does not plan to resume full staffing or research operations until a vaccine is widely available and the pandemic is under control.
Family and home responsibilities have also increased: Half of trainees and one-third of faculty report that family and home responsibilities have a negative impact on their productivity. Researchers with school-age children now face stress and uncertainty about whether and for how long schools will open for in-person or virtual learning. The playing field will be extremely uneven in terms of access to resources, family responsibilities, community risk of COVID-19 spread and what it will take to resume research.
There are no easy answers or quick fixes in a pandemic. Just as searching for effective treatments and designing novel vaccines take time and patience, so will recovering and reopening research labs across the country. See the full results of the survey here.
Steven Brooks, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Rockville, Maryland, where he studies the physiology of infectious and tropical diseases. Brooks is currently an APS Early Career Advocacy Fellow. The views expressed in this blog post are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. government.