What Lies Ahead for Indian Researchers Post COVID-19?

How can researchers - faced with a loss of work opportunities and mental healthcare - recoup post the lockdown?

Published20 May 2020, 12:30 PM IST
Coronavirus
6 min read

“When will everything go back to normal?” This question has struck almost everyone at least once (a day) since we went into a nationwide lockdown.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced the entire world into an unprecedented situation beyond anyone’s imagination (some Hollywood directors are a notable exception). These are difficult and uncertain times for everyone; the quandaries each group of people is experiencing are distinct.

Even for the research community, most of which is used to uncertainties due to the nature of their work, this period has been overwhelming.

Hampered Research Activities

Researchers felt a severe jolt when several research institutes were forced to shut down their activities almost overnight in March. With labs closed, several crucial long-term experiments have been hindered, stalling research projects. There are instances where researchers remorsefully had to euthanize the rodent colonies and lost precious reagents.

Progress made by researchers after months and years of hard work is squandered.

Those engaged in field-work especially of seasonal nature, are looking at the possibility of yearlong setbacks to their work. Even after lockdown is lifted, it will be a while before experiments can be resumed.

One historical anecdote has been the talk of the research town and is widely circulating on social media - “Isaac Newton did his seminal work on gravity and calculus while quarantining during a lockdown of the Great Plague of London.”

While this is encouraging, working from home is difficult for many researchers due to caring responsibilities and domestic demands.

The situation is much worse for women scientists as they are disproportionately burdened with domestic chores in several households. There is a perception that researchers can perform data analysis, write their manuscripts and publish while working from the comfort of their home. Unfortunately, the road to publication is not straight. For experimentalists, many journals and reviewers are still continuing to ask for additional experiments that are impossible to do in the current situation. Even if some labs are partially open, it is very difficult to obtain any new reagents such as antibodies for experiments. In a welcome move, few science journals such as eLife, PLoS and JCI are curtailing the requests for additional experimentation during revisions and if necessary, providing extra time for resubmission.

Loss of Career Opportunities and Financial Woes

For several PhD students, their plans of graduation might be delayed. Loss of a precious year in graduation is precarious in the Indian context where strict age limits are imposed on all kinds of hiring. Students finishing their degrees this year will have a harder time on the job market due to economic slowdown and possible hiring freezes. Students wanting to go abroad to further their research career will have to wait longer. Many students who won competitive opportunities for research exchange or travel grants to go overseas had to let go of these precious chances.

Scientific conferences are integral to researcher’s life and provide them opportunities to present and discuss their work among peers. While the worldwide lockdown has resulted in cancellations or postponements of several such meetings, a handful of them have moved online. Online conferences do provide an opportunity for students to still present their research and witness the latest developments in the field. But the chance to solicit collaborations, network and seek career advancement opportunities are drastically hampered.

Timely disbursal of fellowships/grants installments is problematic even in regular times. This has taken a further hit when offices of funding bodies are working at reduced capacity. Many researchers also fear that economic turmoil caused by COVID-19 may result in significant cuts in overall scientific funding. Albeit understandable, it is likely that a large chunk of funding will be diverted to COVID related research with other areas receiving lower priority. All this will contribute significantly to the financial woes of researchers, both on the research and the personal front.

Poor Mental Health and Lost Access to Mental Health Services

Florence Nightingale wrote in her book ‘Notes on Nursing’ that “Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion”. It is no secret that several researchers, particularly the PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, suffer from poor mental health. A recent survey in November 2019 of more than 6000 graduate students by Nature revealed that more than a third of the students have sought help for anxiety and depression. The sheer magnitude of the stress that has come with not being able to finish experiments for an extended period is bound to considerably affect this vulnerable lot. Add to it a toxic mix of peer-pressure and uncertainties associated with personal life; the anxiety escalates many folds.

Another worrying factor is social isolation. Although the pandemic requires us to maintain physical distance and not social distance, the reality is different. Many researchers live alone or away from their family and only meet friends and colleagues at work. With the regular work routine disrupted, and with restriction on gatherings, isolation is an inevitable by-product.

The example of Sir Isaac Newton, something that is meant to be motivational, also reinforces expectations that researchers can continue to be productive during the lockdown. Let alone someone who is too anxious or depressed to cope with the current situation, such ‘expectations’ to emulate Newton can be distressing to anyone.

Many researchers rely on regular counselling or therapy to manage their mental health. This too, has been hampered in the current scenario.

If not dealt with, it is likely that some researchers will suffer the long-term effects of an extended period of mental turmoil. To avoid this, it is imperative for researchers to stay connected with their friends, peers and support networks.

Those who need further help can connect to many organizations such as National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS), Tata Institute of Social Sciences iCALL, Mpower or AASRA, who are providing counseling through telephone helplines.

A Glimpse of Hope!

Even the darkest of clouds have a silver lining!

This extraordinary situation has brought science and scientists to the center stage.

Governments and public alike have realized the importance of science. Recognizing the urgent need to understand this enigmatic disease, several funding bodies opened special calls for COVID-19 related research projects, where decisions were taken on an express time scale. Multiple national funding bodies have also shown remarkable flexibility during such time by allowing investigators to submit documents such as utilization certificates online with an extended deadline.

This pandemic has led to an unprecedented global collaboration among researchers across the disciplines.

Governments, research institutes and industries have come together in order to develop and expedite new vaccines/technologies to combat the disease. Many scientists and organizations that are not directly involved in COVID-10 research are also stepping up to disseminate accurate information about the disease and bust any myths spreading through social media.

As research labs across the world are scrambling to generate more and more data about COVID19 and SARS-CoV-2, it is important to make that information quickly and freely accessible.

Since traditional peer-reviewed publication models are relatively slower and expensive, researchers flocked to the preprint repositories making them more popular and acceptable in the mainstream.

However, one must be cautious in interpreting these data due to lack of peer-reviewing.

The success and acceptance of online meetings in the scientific community has set the tone for a hybrid conference model where both in-person and online attendance is possible. That will provide an opportunity to researchers who cannot travel abroad due to personal, financial or visa issues and in turn, build an inclusive scientific environment.

Marie Curie wrote – “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less”. Science and society will be limping towards normalcy in upcoming months as lockdown eases. Need of the hour is to sustain the momentum and carry forward the lessons learnt from this pandemic.

(Annapoorna PK is a PhD student studying epigenetics and depression at CSIR-CCMB, Hyderabad. She can be reached at annapoornap[a]ccmb.res.in. Poonam Thakur is an India Alliance Fellow and Assistant Professor studying neurodegeneration at IISER-Thiruvananthapuram. She can be reached at Poonam[at]iisertvm.ac.in.)

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