‘Less pipetting and more thinking’: scientists carry on through the pandemic

Asian man looking at camera discussion from a computer monitor screen at home office.

The pandemic has presented obstacles and upsides for researchers globally.Credit: Getty

Nearly all respondents (97%) to a global survey of 2,000 researchers reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their work — and half reported ‘significant’ impact — but most are staying productive despite the disruptions. Those are among the key findings of a study of users of ResearchGate, the Berlin-based scientific social-network and paper-sharing site. The survey was conducted over an 18-hour period on 19 February. The survey report does not disclose where respondents live or their disciplines or career stages.

Two-thirds of respondents are continuing to work on data analysis and experimental planning, even if the experiments themselves have to wait until lockdowns are fully lifted. In the comment section of the survey, a researcher whose institution was shuttered at the time reported that they had found other ways to work. “The positive is that I have had the opportunity to study a large quantity of research papers, write two review articles, and complete one research paper.”

Another researcher noted the extra obstacles to doing research during the pandemic: “A lot of my time is spent devising ways to accomplish tasks that would have been easier in the lab or face-to-face.”

The pandemic has transformed the research workplace. In the survey, more than eight out of ten respondents said they work from home. Of those, about one-third reported that they weren’t working exclusively at home, suggesting they occasionally ventured to the office or the lab.

Keeping busy

The ResearchGate survey underscores the fact that scientists can stay productive even a during catastrophe, says Alisa Wolberg, a haematology researcher at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Wolberg and one her PhD students, Dre’Von Dobson, co-authored an article published last September1 that discusses some of the pandemic’s ‘silver linings’ for scientific research.

Wolberg notes that researchers have had more time to ponder the big picture of their work — or, as she puts it, there’s been “less pipetting and more thinking”. “I don’t want to undersell how tragic this experience has been,” she says. “But scientists love to find problems and solve them. We’re going to stay busy with the other things that our jobs entail.”

The survey’s findings don’t precisely correspond with the results of other studies that found that the pandemic has significantly disrupted not just many people’s scientific output, but also their careers. In a Nature survey of postdocs last year, for example, 70% of postdoctoral researchers in South America reported that their careers have suffered during the pandemic.

In the ResearchGate survey, 40% of respondents said they had spent more or much more time searching for and reading scientific literature. Slightly more than half have spent more or much more time writing, submitting and peer-reviewing papers. “With so many scientists at home, papers are being written and submitted en masse,” wrote one respondent. “I’ve had to review four times more papers than usual during this time.”

The pandemic has slowed some of Dobson’s experimental work. On the upside, he’s been able to build up his network of colleagues and mentors through video conferencing. For example, his group at the UNC shares its weekly lab meetings with a group led by James Luyendyk at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “I feel like I’ve gained another mentor,” Dobson says. “If I’m giving a presentation, I can reach out to Jim to see what he thinks.” For 62% of respondents, the amount of time they spend collaborating with others either stayed the same or increased.

All of that connectivity has a downside, however, especially when it comes to teaching duties: 40% of respondents have spent more or much more time teaching during the pandemic, and the comment section reflected widespread frustration with the demands of online instruction. “Online teaching duties require far more preparation,” wrote one respondent. “Work–life balance has been destroyed, as e-mail availability requires 24–7 responsibility.”

Dobson acknowledges that the pandemic has complicated his research and training — but, like many survey respondents, he’s moving ahead. “The bad things outweigh the good, but there are things that we can all take with us from this experience as we transition to some form of normalcy.”

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