Resuming research during COVID-19

Nick Wigginton  (Image credit: Courtesy Nick Wigginton)

Nick Wigginton (Image credit: Courtesy Nick Wigginton)

A perspective article co-authored by senior research officers from six leading research universities, including Stanford, argues for a gradual, stepwise approach to reopening of academic research that is informed by public health expertise.

At Stanford and universities across the country, COVID-19 has hampered not only education but academic research as well. Engineers and scientists are cut off from their labs and equipment. Crucial experiments have been disrupted. Field researchers and social and clinician scientists are unable to travel or work with human subjects. Even theoreticians and humanities scholars, who can presumably perform much of their work remotely, are feeling the repercussions of the pandemic due to the lack of in-person collaborations and access to collections.

Meanwhile, there is growing concern about the consequences that a sudden and prolonged research freeze will have on vulnerable members of the science community - young and early career researchers who can least afford disruptions and women researchers who, due to long-standing family care disparities, may bear the brunt of childcare and homeschooling responsibilities.

To address these and other issues related to the fallout of COVID-19 on academic research at their campuses, research leadership from six leading public and private research institutions co-wrote a perspective piece that will appear in this week’s issue of the journal Science. In the article, the authors argue that a gradual, stepwise approach informed by public health expertise is essential to reopening research and that the pandemic may represent an opportunity to address long-standing equity issues in the research enterprise.

The co-authors include Kathryn Moler , vice provost and dean of research at Stanford, and Nick Wigginton, the assistant vice president of research at the University of Michigan. Wigginton spent the last academic year at Stanford as part of the ACE Fellows program working with Moler. Other contributors to the perspective are the Senior Research Officers of UC Berkeley, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Research universities and our graduates contribute directly not only to discovery and innovation but to the health of the economy and the environment. Producing new knowledge is a high-value activity, especially in the current crisis, and it can be conducted in low-risk ways," said Moler, who is also a professor of physics and applied physics in the School of Humanities and Sciences. "It’s therefore imperative that research starts up quickly - but it must be done in thoughtful ways informed by public health. The stay-at-home orders from [Santa Clara County Public Health Office] Sara Cody and other public health officials in the Bay Area prevented numerous deaths, and now give us space to safely resume some operations, as long as we do so with appropriate caution."

All of the perspective authors agreed that it’s crucial for their research communities to ramp up activities cautiously and in a way that is best informed by public health guidance, Wigginton said. "I’ve been so impressed with how hard faculty, staff and students at institutions around the country have been working to prepare to safely ramp up their research," he added. "There may be extra hoops to jump through early on, and things may not always be as smooth as we’d like, but we all want to see our researchers back on campus or in the field focused on the pursuit of knowledge and discovering solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges."

Wigginton spoke to Stanford Report about factors that will influence how universities adjust their research activities in response to the pandemic and how the repercussions of COVID-19 on science could be felt for years to come, even long after a vaccine is developed.

Who is the intended audience for this perspective and how do you hope it will be used?

We hope policymakers will see this as a call for improving the resilience of the research infrastructure, from thinking of better ways to support the research workforce to improving coordination with public health officials. We also hope this will be read by others in the research community to understand all the decisions and operational challenges that have gone into how institutions are responding to COVID-19 and the reasons for why a phased approach is the best way to ramp research activities back up.

What are some of the high-level takeaways from your perspective that you want readers to walk away with?

We’re all living through this pandemic, and now that we’ve passed 100,000 deaths in the U.S., it’s really starting to sink in how devastating this has been for so many families and sectors of the economy. The research community of course has not been immune to these impacts, and it’s also critically important to the economy both in the short-term and long-term. We want to restart research quickly, but we also want to make sure we do it in a cautious, stepwise way - and that means being prepared to ramp up or down depending on the current status of community transmission and the institution’s level of preparedness.

What stood out for you about Stanford’s response to the pandemic?

In many ways, Stanford has been at the leading edge of this pandemic. Researchers across campus have been making critically important discoveries to help understand and stop the spread of the disease. But also, the Bay Area was one of the first regions of the country to have a strict shelter-in-place order, which seemed extreme at the time. The Stanford research community did an amazing job adapting to that rapidly evolving situation, and relied heavily on the leadership of folks like Kam Moler and many others. I also think Stanford’s strong culture of faculty governance has been really helpful, with the current chair of the faculty senate, Tim Stearns, continuing to play a critical role through this crisis as well. There were so many uncertainties early on, and lots of necessary attention and concern focused on students, but the research community, including faculty, graduate students, postdocs, and staff, responded remarkably well - especially considering Stanford was among the first institutions in the U.S. to go through it.

You write that it could be "years before academic research institutions reach a new normal." A COVID-19 vaccine is anticipated within the next year or so, so why might the impacts on research last potentially much longer?

As one of my co-authors pointed out, a vaccine is not likely to be a panacea. We don’t really know what a vaccine will look like, how effective or widely available it will be, or when it will be available. And even if a vaccine is available and is effective within the next year, the economic and social impacts of this will undoubtedly be felt by institutions and individuals for years. On the flip side, we really have no idea how long control measures like social distancing, mask-wearing, or frequent testing will be required, which will continue to impact some types of research - particularly for those that work with human subjects or for high-risk researchers. On top of that, we expect all work that can be done from home should be done from home for the foreseeable future, which will continue to impact the social dynamics of how we work together in teams.

Prior to the pandemic, did any of your universities have disaster plans in place that anticipated this kind of sudden and long-lasting disruption to research?

Universities operate essentially as small cities with tens of thousands of faculty, students, and staff - and for those with academic medical centers, the numbers are even higher. Institutions undergo emergency preparedness planning all the time, and in California in particular I think there is a strong culture of that given the risk of natural hazards like earthquakes, wildfires and so on. All institutions are required to clear plans in place to ensure the safety of laboratory equipment or animals, for example, in the event of a disaster or crisis. And of course, if you talk to epidemiologists or other public health experts, the risk of a global pandemic from a novel coronavirus was known for some time. That being said, I’m not sure any of our institutions were fully prepared for something on the scale of COVID-19. We cite a recent  report  from the National Academies in our paper on strengthening disaster resilience of the research community, which highlights important lessons for institutions learned from local or regional disasters like hurricanes, but nothing at such a global scale.

As you collaborated on this perspective, what similarities and differences did you and the other coauthors notice in how your respective institutions responded to the pandemic when it came to research?

Yes, this was an interesting and educational aspect of the collaboration. In many ways, it was encouraging to see the similarities in institutional responses. Some of that had to do with the fact that there was a lot of communication between the senior research officers but also because I think many institutions were leaning on their internal expertise of faculty and staff to guide decision making. What really seemed to set our institutions apart was the local or state public health orders that limited what we could or could not do, and the pace at which research needed to ramp down or could be ramped up. With the exception of Stanford and UC Berkeley, whose counties fell under that early Bay Area shelter-in-pace order, every other institution was on a slightly different timeline with slightly different outside factors influencing their decision making.

As you note, the impacts of this pandemic are hitting certain populations more than others, including early career researchers and female researchers. What can or is being done to help them during this crisis?

Institutions have started to take small steps like extending tenure clocks but there are more lasting concerns for those who are even earlier in their careers, including graduate students and postdocs. Thankfully, at most institutions, students that were paid by federal research grants have still been able to receive their stipends even if their lab was closed. But it will be virtually impossible to disentangle the effects of COVID-19 on the longstanding incentive structures and traditional performance metrics typically used in academia. When researchers that have young children at home suddenly have to teach remotely, manage their research groups with major disruptions for their trainees, and also run a homeschool or daycare, how do we adjust measures of productivity? What about someone who suddenly has to care for a sick family member, or who is coping with their own mental health challenges, or who becomes financially insecure because their partner loses their job?

In the long run, this may be a chance for academia to rethink how it assesses research productivity, and if we are even asking the right questions. There are many groups around the country working to make research assessment more equitable and I think we need to those now more than ever.

Do you think that it’s possible to return to pre-pandemic research operations after this? And is that even desirable?

It will certainly be possible to return to a state where research operations mostly resemble what life on campuses looked like before the pandemic. But we know there were many flaws in the system beforehand, and the pandemic has made many worse. This is an opportunity to rethink if that’s what the goal should be, or if we should aspire to something that’s more equitable, more purposeful, more collaborative, more empathetic - or something else entirely.

To read all stories about Stanford science, subscribe to the biweekly Stanford Science Digest .

This site uses cookies and analysis tools to improve the usability of the site. More information. |