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How Research Scientists are Shifting to Work with the New Normal

By Danielle Senador, PhD02 Jun 2020

In recent months, the coronavirus has led to the unprecedented shutdown of many research institutions around the world. Although considerable work can be done remotely, numerous aspects of the scientific process can only be achieved in the lab or in the field. This has left many researchers wondering how to navigate this unprecedented situation. The immediate problem was understanding what lab work could be paused and what needed to move forward from an ethical, practical and financial point of view, regardless of the developing world wide situation. Without a clear understanding of how the pandemic would evolve – this decision became ever more challenging. Guidelines were developed on the spot as the situation evolved and we all tried to adapt to different working conditions, in short order.

Initial Response

reviewing-paperworkInitial implemented work guidelines started with encouragement of home office hours when the job permitted and progressed to virtual lab meetings and classes for the vast majority of labs. In certain circumstances, essential research such as experiments involving animals and/or ongoing clinical trials were allowed to progress, though most found their timelines expedited and lab access limited.

Overall, these steps were geared towards minimizing social interaction while maintaining essential research functions where possible. Institutions worked hard to evaluate how to balance essential work with personnel safety. This continues on a case-by-case basis, considering not only the study peculiarities and requirements (time and personnel) but also governmental restrictions.

Guideline Development

There are a lot of factors that needed to be considered and considered quickly, however it appears that research institutions have largely aligned research practices during this crisis. Scientist are being identified and approved to maintain reduced access to their labs, focusing on personnel responsibilities for maintaining facility operations and critical research activities that cannot be paused. Experiments that require long periods of data collection and that are past their half-point are also being prioritized.

Moving in parallel, funding agencies have shown flexibility and understanding regarding current and future funding plans. Most research agencies have stated the intention to maintain funding for biomedical research while extending deadlines for grant applications. Study sections continue to happen - now virtually instead of “in person”. Recipients can apply for grant extensions and some categories of costs (such as travel cancellation), not allowed in the past, can now be charged under an expanded umbrella of permissions.

Evolving Guidelines Focusing on the Future

As guidelines continue to evolve, questions beyond the practical need to be considered – chief amongst these is ethics. When considering the human impact, government agencies are largely informing institutional policy which in turn is dictating the behavior of PI’s and their staff. However, concern for personal and familial safety will remain high for all of us and should be expected to impact many behaviors.

Lab_mouse_handIn addition to the personal and financial burden, research animals give their life for this purpose and any potential data loss is a tragedy that must be regarded with the highest standards, not only during this period but at ALL times. Decisions to get back to work therefore cannot be taken lightly.

As we navigate this, we gather feedback from these initial response measures while we catalog questions that are inevitably emerging from this process. How will the decisions made today affect tomorrow? Salaries are being paid while data is not being generated - posing challenges to project’s deadlines and hinting at future struggles to be faced by lab members when financial resources are depleted.

While scaling down lab operations can be done rather quickly, ramping up again is a much slower and more costly process. In the high-pressure world of medical science research this could lead to temptations to take risks as institutions open back up. This pressure can put undue stress on lab members which raises the bar for institutions to keep the health and safety of their staff as the highest priority as they continue to develop back-to-work policies.

Research Today

Labs that require on-site activities are organizing shifts and maximizing team efforts, while a lot of research is still happening outside the lab. People are being productive, conducting data analyses and writing protocols, manuscripts, grants, and reviews. For those who work in the lab, it is a well-known fact that desk work always gets neglected. However, this “extra” time, now freed from the hands-on lab duties, can be used for literature reviews, updating laboratory notebooks, organizing data and much needed back-logged data analysis. In the middle of this sea of productivity, researchers are also planning for future experiments, and it is impossible not to add a note of inspiration here.

Although people are logically anxious and disappointed - it is hard to “push the pause button” on research - these measures are deemed necessary for this collective effort to slow down the spread of the virus.


Our Reality

By early February, some of Transonic’s collaborative research projects had finally reached a critical mass with partners, facilities and schedules synchronized for April. However, as COVID-19 spread, most but not all of our collaborative projects were then put on hold.

We are fortunate to work with a partner who was allowed to remain fully operational and this project was able to retain its original timeline. We are usually highly involved in these research and development studies, with a heavy presence on site and hands on interaction. However, since traveling to the customer site was no longer an option, we had to resort to video calls in order to provide technical support to the project. Thankfully the study was very successful, yet the most remarkable aspect has been the level of understanding and flexibility of our partners that made this a rewarding team effort.

Trying to navigate through COVID-19 has been a challenge, but not an impossibility. We, like you, are looking forward to being back in lab as soon as safely possible.