Pandemic ‘frees’ researchers from ‘hampering’ habit of travel

The loss of academic conferences during the coronavirus pandemic has revealed how research collaboration has been “hampered” by an over-reliance on in-person meetings, a university head has told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit.

Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, said academia’s embrace of virtual communication during the Covid-19 crisis had shown that it was “possible to work even better than we did before when we were hampered by our habits of face-to-face conferences and meetings”.

“When our labs started reopening, people said they spent more time talking to their international collaborators than when they could fly across the sky to meet them,” said Professor West, who added that the use of digital communication during lockdown had particularly benefited research collaboration between her university’s three campuses in Nottingham, Malaysia and China.

Professor West told the virtual THE event that sector leaders should “not take our eye off the ball to this possibility” of improving international research collaboration using digital tools.

Academia’s response to the coronavirus had been a “stellar example of interdisciplinary and international research” showing how a “scientific problem can be understood and solved by scientists in different parts of the world sharing their knowledge”, she said.

Other university leaders also praised how researchers had swiftly adopted virtual conferencing and communications, but noted that this form of digital interaction was much harder to arrange.

Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven, in Belgium, said it was “paradoxical” that the “model of virtual mobility needs deeper collaboration, more coordination and organisation than simple student [and staff] mobility”, which typically saw PhD candidates and junior researchers spend several months in the laboratories of different universities.

However, some senior scientists at the THE event questioned Professor West’s implication that virtual conferencing can replicate some of the more important elements of more traditional in-person academic gatherings.

Yoav Yair, a professor in the Open University of Israel’s department of natural sciences, wondered whether “for research collaborations…we can dispense with physical meeting and travel?”

“Until now, many strong collaborations between scientists have been derived from individuals spending significant periods in each other’s labs,” he said.

Tim Softley, pro vice-chancellor (research and knowledge transfer) at the University of Birmingham, asked: “Would those collaborations [that ran successfully in lockdown] have been initiated without face-to-face meetings?”

Christine Ennew, provost at the University of Warwick, said universities would “need both the face to face and the virtual” to continue to cooperate internationally.

“The initial face to face is important in building the initial relationship but once that relationship is in place, it is much easier to sustain and develop through digital channels,” Professor Ennew said.

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