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The Black Hole

Coronavirus and cancelled travel – some fringe benefits for researchers?

We have an incredible opportunity to explore some new virtual conferencing solutions, and have team leaders be more present in their labs than usual.


The topic on everyone’s minds these days is the dynamics and impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus) on world health. The knock on effects have been incredible, Northern Italy is in lockdown, global markets have plummeted, and hundreds of daily flights have been cancelled. Paling in comparison to the global impact, people’s everyday lives have also been disrupted ranging from severe impact on the hospitality industry through reduced restaurant visits and holiday-making through to increases in online grocery orders. Academics are great at analyzing and commenting on what is happening to others, but we often fail to notice things impacting our day to day operations. Academic staff seem to just nod along with “what’s best” and deal with the cancelled travel, cancelled conferences, and teaching/research disruptions. I’m hoping we can do more than just nod along this time and seize the opportunity to make some more long-lasting changes to the status quo in academic practice.

There is an incredible opportunity right now to explore tools that could enable substantial change in practice for substantially less money than normal. The best example is that field leaders in virtual conferencing equipment/software companies are offering free conferencing software for the short term. The LA Times ran an article with the tag line “Coronavirus means we must telecommute. We’re not ready.” Academics like being at the forefront of things – perhaps now could be seen as a great opportunity for academics that wouldn’t normally splash out the cash to explore the potential of these tools to do so. Small conferences that have had to be cancelled could be convened as web-conferences to salvage some of the desired outcomes (collaborations, knowledge sharing) and hopefully a few organisations/individuals would be convinced to adopt such strategies permanently or intermittently in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint and travel downtime.

There will also be some enforced temporary changes in practice that could be viewed as an opportunity to experiment with the standard approaches and evaluate them to see whether they might work in the long-term. I’ve listed a few such examples below.

Virtual grant panels

Before I get into another battle based on my support for virtual peer review, I will happily condemn asynchronous review that relies on people to read, assess and respond without a live conversation. That said, there are a number of tools (see above) that could support live video-conferencing that could be tested during the coming months for their effectiveness in making decisions about how we disburse grant funding. Prior research suggests there is some merit here with at least one study suggesting that there was no difference in funding the best science and another listing some side benefits of face-to-face panels as “the camaraderie and networking that occurs in person, the thoroughness of discussion, the ease of speaking up or having one’s voice heard, the fact that it is more difficult to multitask or become distracted, reading panelists’ facial expressions, and perceived cohesiveness of the panel.” If these side benefits are obtainable outside of a grant panel setting, then surely it’s a good idea to at least explore the reduction of face-to-face grant panels. As an aside, and maybe a future column, it is important to consider the barrier that travel preferentially imposes on some researchers (those with caring responsibilities, physical disabilities, illnesses, or geographical isolation).

Grounding absentee landlords

A growing trend in biomedical sciences over the last 10-15 years has been group leaders who spend incredible amounts of time away from their labs at grant panels, conferences, etc. Anecdotally, I’ve heard of a substantial number of professors who spend more than half of their time away from the lab that they are supposed to be guiding. Yes, they keep in touch by email, and placing Skype calls is becoming easier and easier, but I will be very curious to see what this next few months has in store for those labs whose group leaders are rarely present. Maybe we’ll see some extra attention on long forgotten projects or key strategic meetings that pull together people whose schedules are impossible to overlay? Perhaps we might even come to the realization in some labs that research/life is actually better without the big boss present…  We would invite your stories in the comments and/or through email at [email protected] . We will share any neat ideas with our readers.

In conclusion, I do not wish in any way to undermine the impact and importance of the COVID-19 crisis. What I am hoping, though, is that we can use this enforced period of low/no travel to reconsider the structures that we currently cling to which involve substantial travel and evaluate new possibilities when everyone is more or less inclined to partake in a virtual experiment when travel is not an option. It would be particularly interesting to hear from those who feel that their work or their mental/physical health have benefitted from this period of grounding.  Surely there is some good to emerge as a result of all of the stress and worry that COVID-19 is wreaking on our society.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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