Coronavirus lockdown forces tough choices on Italian scientists

As labs shut, researchers in Milan fear losing months of work – and urge colleagues abroad to prepare now for similar restrictions

March 17, 2020
Healthcare workers work on the preparation of evaluation swabs for Coronavirus in research lab of Amedeo di Savoia hospital, Turin, Italy
Source: Getty

Scientists stuck in coronavirus lockdown in Italy have warned colleagues in other countries to “prepare now” for similar restrictions, taking measures such as delaying new experiments and ensuring that they have the digital tools needed to work from home.

Sweeping movement restrictions in the northern provinces hardest hit by coronavirus were announced by the Italian government on 8 March, and they have since been extended to the whole country.

In Milan, one of the epicentres of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, this has meant that researchers have had to make agonising choices, such as whether to stay away from the lab or risk jeopardising months of work on experiments that require regular attention.

“We want to save experiments that have been running for months or years” – on mice, for example – but at the same time “shut off everything that is not needed”, said Marco Foiani, scientific director of the FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology.

The lockdown has meant that in an institute normally hosting about 350 academics, just 30 continue to work in the labs, he said. Colleagues in other countries should “immediately” establish “what can be switched off” in the event of their facing similar quarantines, he said.

Professor Foiani urged all labs to make their staff familiar with remote conferencing tools “now” so they will face less disruption if workplaces are shut.

Yathish Achar, a postdoctoral researcher at the institute, explained that long-term experiments, such as those on ageing cells, were still being looked after by a skeleton staff of scientists who worked in shifts, visited as briefly as possible and used separate labs to reduce contact.

“Unless it’s extremely important to attend, we are not going there,” he said.

But with no idea of how the lockdown measures might progress, it was unclear how long experiments could be maintained. Some colleagues, he said, were living in fear of losing years of work.

Dr Achar, who now leaves the house only to buy groceries, has postponed any new experiments, and he warned international colleagues to be wary of starting any with month-long run times.

Scientists in Milan have been using their time at home to work on non-laboratory tasks, such as preparing grant proposals and doing computational analysis. Dr Achar advised researchers to think about what work they could get on with if unable to travel to work.

At the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research, all but “strictly necessary” lab work for projects that have been running for months has been stopped, explained Silvio Garattini, its director. “It would be a waste of resources” to shut these down, he said.

Professor Garattini, who is 91 years old, was stoical in the face of the disruption. “Personally, I’m not that impressed, because I’ve been through the last war,” he said. “I know what is a war. People had to go to the front – now they have to work at home.”

But working at home is not necessarily a picnic. Where he lives, Professor Foiani said, the sound of ambulance sirens was ever present in the background, and he described Milan under lockdown as “hell”.

“The situation is extremely depressing,” he said, although his work afforded him some psychological relief. “We’re lucky in a way: we’re stimulated by our work,” he said, adding that those unable to work from home were less fortunate.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: No mice left behind? Lockdown forces tough choices on Italian scientists

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

The sudden closure of university campuses across China and elsewhere has necessitated the virtual delivery of vast numbers of courses. And while there have been inevitable teething problems, observers are wondering whether the future might just have become the present. Joyce Lau reports

12 March

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented

Sponsored