5 strategies to protect research capacity post-COVID-19

By Lucia Loffreda 04/11/2020.

Earlier this week, we shared a blog post outlining three priorities for a research-led recovery from COVID-19. This follows the publication of two new summary and full reports, assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the research enterprise, as part of a series commissioned by Springer Nature.

In this week’s post, the second in our four-part series, I’ll revisit Priority 1 – Protect research capacity. This post will first summarise the key challenges faced by researchers, particularly in the first six months of the crisis, before reflecting on the five underpinning strategies necessary to protect research capacity in the long-term.

Barriers to doing research in a pandemic

COVID-19 has significantly impacted the ability of researchers to progress their work. Our report identifies three clear barriers to research production that have been imposed by the pandemic.

  • Social distancing measures have severely limited the ability to conduct research across disciplines, and the impact of COVID is most significant on research that cannot be undertaken online. Lab research has been severely hampered by reduced facility access, and so too have academics relying on access to human participants or field work. The digitisation of knowledge resources, a more flexible blend of online and offline research methods and use of remote communication tools emerge as key lessons for resilient research projects in the new COVID-19 world.
  • Social isolation and changing priorities have altered the nature of research. Despite the increasing use of online communication tools, social isolation has hampered the collaborations and organic communication that stimulate new ideas and research. International research collaborations in particular have suffered, especially projects requiring international travel, field work or access to overseas facilities, which have been halted.
  • Postponed or cancelled research projects threaten career progression and diversity in academia. Early career researchers (ECRs) with small personal networks suffered from cancelled research projects and events. This has led to calls for a reformulation on PhD training that prepares students for research careers outside of academia. Similarly, female and younger researchers (who often have more caring responsibilities) have struggled to conduct research during the pandemic, leading to concern that the diversity of the academic workforce may be undermined in the long-term.

How are universities responding?

We introduced a graphic, similar to the one below, in our last blog post. This graphic summarised the three-phased response that most stakeholders are having to the global health crisis. Below, we present how universities are best to respond in order to continue doing research during a pandemic.

Figure 1. A phased response to the crisis (adapted from: PwC 2020)

Five strategies to protect research capacity

As most institutions still find themselves shifting between the mobilise and stabilise phases, our work has sought to identify five actionable strategies for stakeholders across the research enterprise to transition to the strategising phase. These five strategies are listed below:

  1. Rebalance research effort to tackle changing national and global priorities. The outbreak of COVID-19 led to the rapid reallocation of resources across universities and other research performing organisations. This has placed an immediate strain on research capacity, and led to the repurposing of research grants to support COVID-related research. Research funders will have a key role to play here by taking co-ordinated action to rebalance research efforts.
  2. Develop blended online and offline research methods. The shift to online research has exposed a critical need for blended learning and research. This will require significant efforts from university leaders, research support staff and researchers to adapt to new ways of working. The role of infrastructure providers is also central to the transition.
  3. Strike new partnerships to counter ‘research nationalism’. There are emerging concerns that the disruption of international research could prompt a gradual shift to ‘research nationalism’. It is essential that new international partnerships are formed to tackle global social issues. It is likely that government and policy makers will play a key role here in coordinating research funders, universities, and researchers around this goal.
  4. Address instability and structural inequality in academic career pathways. Early career and female researchers have been most significantly impacted by the disruption to research caused by COVID-19. This takes place at a critical point in academia, where over the last few years we’ve seen an increased attention paid to the diversity of the workforce. Stakeholders across the research enterprise should work together to ensure that the impact of COVID-19 does not deepen existing inequalities.
  5. Reform postgraduate research training. The severe impact the pandemic has had on ECRs highlights the fundamental need to reform postgraduate research training. This will require significant guidance and efforts from government and policy makers to better prepare ECRs for careers in academia and beyond.

Many of the strategies highlighted above will rely on a coordinated response from stakeholders across the research landscape. In the graphic below, we’ve linked each strategy to the stakeholders most critical to their implementation. These are indicated by the solid-filled boxes.

Figure 2. Five strategies to protect research capacity

Where to next?

Next week, we’ll explore the risks the pandemic presents to access to research information, and set out 5 more underpinning strategies which universities, funders, governments, publishers and other stakeholders should be adopting to enable a research-led recovery from COVID-19.

You can read the full set of findings and strategies in our full report, and last week’s blog at this link. To be kept up to date on the next posts in the series, you can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To discuss how we can help your organisation develop its strategy in the light of COVID-19 please visit our website or contact Rob Johnson, Director.