How the Pandemic Is Changing the Ways of Science—Not All of It May be for the Good

The ongoing pandemic has left an indelible mark on the world in more ways than one. Irrespective of class, profession, and religion, everyone seems to be creating a new definition of “normal” for themselves.

This applies to the scientific community too, which has been dealing with the reverberations of the crisis in its own way. Before the pandemic, academia had its own set of challenges. But never before had scientists faced an urgency to evolve this rapidly. Unequivocally, this has led to a huge change in the way that science functions. This impact, however, has not been uniform across all sections of academia. Let’s take a look at how it might be creating a divide between some sections of the research community.

Field Research Comes to a Complete Halt

Most governments across the globe have responded to the crisis by putting strict restrictions on human activity: understandably so, considering that social distancing might be the only hope to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 infections. This has put a damper on field research, with scientific institutions halting all projects temporarily. The repercussions of this, however, could be more than just temporary. Scientists who depend on field research are worried that losing this time could gravely affect their research. For example, Emily Darling, a scientist working with the Wildlife Conservation Society, works on coral reefs. With the global coral reef population already threatened due to environmental issues, a delay in studying them could mean missing out on valuable data.

Moreover, with projects being suspended indefinitely, this casts a shadow of uncertainty on whether funds would be available by the time the situation returns to normal. Undoubtedly, this could be a huge professional blow for scientists who depend on data collection and field research. But, it also brings up the question of how this could affect the community at large: for example, by delaying policymaking on crucial field-research-related topics (such as the looming climate crisis or even preventing the next pandemic).

“Essential” Research Must Go On

While field researchers have no option but to halt operations, some other sections of the scientific community have declared their research too “essential” to be halted. This mostly includes scientists conducting “wet-lab” research, those studying vaccine and drug development, or those working with biological samples and animals that require constant attention. The decision to keep these labs functional despite the recommended social isolation measures certainly raises concerns regarding the safety of researchers. Moreover, despite some scientists reporting that academia has become “kinder” amidst the crisis, some doctoral students experience pressure from universities to continue their research. Under these circumstances, labs have come up with their own measures to deal with these concerns. For example, Mike Turner, Director of Science at Wellcome, recommends following a buddy system by working in groups of two for safety. John Morrison (Director, California National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis) says, “We are exercising an extreme form of social distancing while at work. We are not starting any new protocols or studies beyond COVID-19 research. We are doing what we can to keep existing research protocols going.” Only time will tell whether these measures are enough to prevent a potential outbreak in labs.

Publication Is Being Fast-Tracked, But Only for COVID-19

An important part of being in academia is getting your research published. Usually, this process is rigorous, with each study undergoing multiple checks, including a peer review. However, with leaders and health agencies pushing researchers to prioritize vaccine development against the novel coronavirus, many journals have fast-tracked (or completely scrapped) the peer review process, an essential part of what makes scientific studies reliable. This is evident from the high number of COVID-19 studies being published on a daily basis and the growing popularity of “preprints” (online platforms that publish research but are not peer-reviewed). Although crucial during these times, speeding up this process jeopardizes the quality of research and may encourage malpractices among researchers. And while researchers working on COVID-19 might benefit from this approach, those focused on other subjects might experience a delay in getting published.

(Some) Pharmaceutical Companies Rule the World

In the pharmaceutical industry too, this divide is evident. To speed up the process of finding effective drugs against COVID-19, scientists have turned to existing drugs (for example, the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine or the vaccine against tuberculosis). This might lead to pharmaceuticals in charge of manufacturing these drugs getting an undue advantage and monopolizing the market. An example is the antiviral drug remdesivir, which has shown potential as a drug against COVID-19. Countries all over have now pinned their hopes on Gilead, the lead manufacturer of this drug. Although Gilead is providing the drug free of charge for clinical trials, when they make their license freely available is the question. Regardless, Dr. Greg Licholai, a lecturer at Yale SOM and chief medical information officer at PRA Health Sciences, believes, “Several sponsors are taking advantage of antiviral drugs that could be useful in treating COVID-19.”

Who’s to say whether these effects of the pandemic are permanent, but they have certainly raised alarms regarding the future of science. Perhaps, in order to recover from the crisis, the scientific community will now be forced to rethink its ways and adapt to these trying times. One thing is certain: life as we know it has changed.

Image Credits:

‘Lab’ by Shutterstock
‘Fish swimming’ by Francesco Ungaro from Pexels
‘Face mask’ by Gustavo Fring from Pexels
‘Whiteboard’ by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels
‘Pills’ by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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