We must use the pandemic to build a more sustainable research system

Covid-19 offers universities a chance to accelerate the transition towards a more digital, open and inclusive research environment, says Cisca Wijmenga

August 28, 2020
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The Covid-19 pandemic has been a major disrupter for university research and education in the short term, but it may also prove to have a more long-term impact. In the short term, the pandemic has led to research labs being closed and research work on human subjects brought to a halt, thereby immediately impacting the research trajectories of PhD students, postdocs and other academics on fixed-term funding. Virtual conferences and meetings have become the norm, as has online education.

Covid-19, and the coronavirus itself, quickly became the subject of wide-ranging studies, while the research community showed its adaptive ability in shifting its work towards understanding the virus better and finding treatments and developing vaccines. In addition, new studies were initiated, like the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative, which aims to identify genetic risk factors associated with the onset and severity of Covid-19, and PsyCorona, which aims to investigate the consequences of the corona crisis for our well-being. These are two good examples of citizen science. All these efforts were only possible because they could build upon existing infrastructures and strong international collaborations.

The longer-term consequences of the pandemic are not yet clear. It is unpredictable how political or health issues will affect researchers’ mobility, given that the US, China and the UK are among the top five countries for scientific research, and two of these have been badly affected by the pandemic. Nevertheless, this period of lockdown can be used to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our international research systems, and the threats and opportunities the pandemic may provoke. One major threat relates to the future funding of research: on one hand, the crisis may lead to research funding being redirected, while on the other hand, the ensuing economic crisis may lead to major changes in the public funding of research and universities. 

At the same time, the pandemic may accelerate developments such as the digital revolution, the transition to open science and open data, and reforms of research career development.

The digital revolution

Although widespread lockdowns across the world might suggest that many activities have stopped almost completely, digital highways have become extremely busy, with many organisations and authorities moving their activities online. In the Western world, digitalisation has made its way into almost every aspect of our lives and may also transform the way research is done in the future.

Building professional networks has always been important for researchers, and this has normally occurred during physical meetings and conferences. In the immediate future, we may have to move towards a hybrid situation, where physical interactions are mixed with virtual ones, as social-distancing restrictions demand new ways for academics to share, inspire, learn, engage and develop ideas with each other. A mixed reality, where the physical world blends with the virtual world, is becoming feasible using augmented-reality technology. At the same time, such developments will reduce the number of flights that academics take, thereby positively impacting on our planet’s climate. Scientific and academic communities may also become much more inclusive if, for example, conferences move online, as this would allow researchers who might otherwise have problems travelling to a conference – for example, due to expense, time, visa issues or complex personal situations – to attend.

The transition to open science and open data

The immediate sharing of the Sars-CoV-2 DNA sequence by the Chinese biomedical community showed the importance of open data and the need for worldwide collaboration to combat the virus as quickly as possible, and proved that tackling the pandemic requires a broad range of scientific disciplines working together. The use of preprint servers enabled the rapid dissemination of scientific data on Covid-19.

Universities and funding bodies should now aim to continue this momentum and move towards open science – open data and data sharing, and open-access publishing – even more quickly. Since 2016, the Dutch Research Council (NWO) has included a data-management section in its grant application forms to raise awareness among researchers of open science. It includes the policy “Open as possible, closed if necessary”. However, for the sharing and reusing of scientific data to be fully embraced, open science must be made a part of researchers’ career assessment, while funding bodies, governments and universities should invest in the necessary infrastructure to implement the FAIR guiding principles (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable).

The movement towards open-access publishing gained momentum when Plan S was launched in September 2018. Earlier this year, the Dutch universities reached an agreement with Elsevier to publish all their research as open access in Elsevier journals. These movements are an absolute necessity for providing equal access to knowledge, information and data, and for bridging the knowledge gap between developing countries and the rest of the world.  

Research career development

In the Netherlands, there is a general notion that the career trajectories of tenure track or junior faculty depend too heavily on publication metrics, while aspects such as teaching, leadership, open science, societal impact, and team science are neglected. Last year, the Dutch knowledge sector agreed to reform the system and move towards a more balanced approach of recognising and rewarding academics. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown once more why this is so important and will hopefully speed up this major transition. Early career researchers should also be given more room for curiosity-driven research facilitated by robust but flexible research infrastructure and funding systems.  

The lessons learned from the pandemic are: that our research landscape needs to be flexible and resilient; that we need strong, worldwide, interdisciplinary collaborations to tackle problems as big as Covid-19, climate change and sustainability; and that sharing data and results is a prerequisite for making progress. Technology and digitalisation are a driving force and may also contribute to more sustainable and inclusive research environments. Furthermore, we need to rethink our education system to make it attractive for students to pursue a research career by, for example, integrating societal challenges in curricula and placing emphasis on interdisciplinary teamwork and open science.

As Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s hope that the lessons learned during this pandemic will lead to a more sustainable and inclusive research environment.

Cisca Wijmenga is rector at the University of Groningen.


The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021 will be published at 12pm BST on 2 September. The results will be exclusively revealed at the THE World Academic Summit, which will explore the challenges created or accelerated by the pandemic and identify new opportunities for progressive reform. 

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Reset the system

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