Pandemic's effect on scientists may be long lasting, study finds

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The effects of the hugely disruptive event are still being felt by the scientific community more than a year and a half after it began.

Northwestern University's new study has shown that while researchers' productivity levels have generally returned to pre-pandemic levels, scientists who didn’t pursue COVID-19-related work initiated 36% less new projects in 2020 than they did in 2019. This drastic drop in new projects may indicate that the pandemic's effect on science could be more long-lasting than people think.

According to Dashun Wang of Northwestern, the study's leader, "On the surface it seems that researchers are as productive today as they were in the past." They are instead generating new directions. Instead, they are busy writing up existing research or revisiting data. This was true in all scientific disciplines. No field was immune to this reduction in projects.

Researchers also discovered that women and caregivers of children under five years old are more likely to be discouraged from pursuing new projects, which could further exacerbate the already unjust effects of the pandemic.

The study will be published in Nature Communications on Tuesday, October 26th.

Wang is a Kellogg School of Management professor of management and organizational management. He is also a professor of industrial engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering.

"Impact may not manifest for many years"

This study is based on Wang's April 2020 survey of 4,500 scientists across Europe and the United States about their productivity levels. The study, published in Nature Human Behavior, July 2020, found that scientists who depend on laboratories for their research experienced a greater decline in research hours than scientists working in less-equipment-intensive fields like mathematics, statistics, and economics. Researchers with children under five years old experienced 17% more research hours lost than researchers without children in similar fields.

Wang and his team revisited their work in January 2021, with vaccine development well under way and the end of the pandemic in sight. They interviewed nearly 7,000 principal investigators from the United States and Europe, and analysed the Dimensions database which is the largest research information database in the world.

Wang and his team posed the same questions regarding productivity in the new survey as they did the old one about overall research activity, including new submissions and collaborations as well as questions about research projects that were started prior to and after the pandemic.

Researchers involved in COVID-19 research initiated approximately the same amount of projects in 2019 and 2020 as they did in 2020. However, there was a marked decline in non-COVID-19 work. The researchers stated that they usually initiate three new projects each year. This dropped to two in 2020. Also, the rate of co-authorships in non-COVID-19 papers has dropped by 5%.

Wang stated that scientists saw a decline in research time during the initial phase of the pandemic. These productivity levels have since recovered which is encouraging. The long time it takes for new research ideas and publications to mature suggests that the pandemic's impact may not be evident in the publication records for many years.

New ideas are generated by in-person interactions

Wang believes that this research emphasizes the importance face-to-face interaction and collaborations as important channels for new ideas. He stated that the results could be used to inform ongoing policy discussions about encouraging social interaction, new collaborations, and resuming in person activities.

Wang stated, "As a researcher myself I often meet new collaborators during conferences and dinners." I get new ideas from coffee chats with my colleagues, where we bounce ideas around. Those interactions were not as common during the pandemic.

Wang warns that even though campuses and laboratories are reopening, it will be difficult for young researchers. Although many institutions have implemented policies such as extension of tenure clocks to support caregivers and parents at the start of the pandemics, parents with young children still need support. Parents are being cautious and avoiding travel and other events until their children are vaccinated.

Wang stated that many institutions use short-term data to help them decide on reopening strategies. Wang said that short-term metrics could mask the long-lasting consequences of the pandemic. Scientists with young children should be aware that children under 12 are still ineligible to receive vaccines. Our findings suggest that even short-term investments such as childcare support may reap long-term rewards.

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