‘Creativity Is Simply Lost’ as Covid Cripples Academic Research

  • Pandemic restrictions hurting PhD students and undergrads
  • Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan could surge ahead

Higher education groups are warning lawmakers that serious federal aid is needed for colleges to bolster scientific work scuttled by the coronavirus, or the U.S. could fall behind international competitors and lose younger talent just beginning careers in research.

“We are in danger of losing a part of a generation of scientists,” said Stephanie Page, an endocrinologist and associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, citing new uncertainty in academic research.

Scientists in many fields have already lost a year’s worth of research thanks to canceled travel in the spring and summer, the one chance many had to collect data on wildlife or conduct other field work.

The effects of the pandemic vary between campuses, but disruptions are ongoing and have affected nearly every aspect of university research.

While many researchers and graduate students returned to work before the fall semester began, access to labs on college campuses remains limited, with only a handful of people allowed at facilities that were previously sites of robust collaboration. Some studies are only now getting back off the ground.

“There’s no getting around the fact that the work has really had to come to a halt,” said Page.

A study of male hormonal contraceptives had to close several sites and switch to monitoring participants remotely, Page said. Two floors of labs at the University of Washington School of Medicine dedicated to seeking cures for diabetes and obesity had to shut down entirely for months, she said.

Photo: Jeremy Geist/Oakland University
Oakland University students take part in a study of New Zealand mud snail in Michigan.

‘We Can’t Do That Anymore’

Important in-the-field work also is at stake.

“We think we’re doing research that will ultimately lead to better forecasts and save hundreds of lives,” said Roger Wakimoto, an atmospheric scientist and vice chancellor for research at the University of California Los Angeles, who normally travels each spring to Oklahoma to collect data on tornadoes with mobile radars. “That was put on hold for a whole year due to travel restrictions.”

At Oakland University outside Detroit, Scott Tiegs, an ecologist, said a year of work tracking the spread of the New Zealand mud snail, an invasive species threatening freshwater ecosystems in Michigan, was lost because of travel restrictions in place since the pandemic began.

“It makes it almost impossible for us to get to field sites,” he said. “In the past, for example, me and a PhD student, and a few undergrads, maybe a volunteer helper—we’d pile into a van and head to a field site in Northern Michigan. And we can’t do that anymore.”

Fewer Workers in Labs

Health and safety measures—and the burdens they create for colleges—vary from state to state. In areas with surges of coronavirus cases or the most stringent health measures, limits on the number of individuals in labs have made collaboration and teaching more difficult.

UCLA labs have operated at 25% capacity since the summer, while labs on campus at the University of North Texas are at 30% capacity.

Faculty members and graduate students have shifted to a 24-hour lab schedule to adjust to the new limits, said Mark McClellan, vice president for research and innovation at the University of North Texas. That means students will lose out on tangible instruction and in-person collaboration.

“A lot of new creativity is simply lost in this effort to keep healthy and still going forward,” he said.

Researchers like Page have had to limit spending while federally backed studies go inactive. Typically, scientists whose work is unfinished after a grant period can request a no-cost extension.

Those kinds of delays aren’t unusual because it often takes time for lab managers to hire staff after receiving a grant, for example. But labs had to keep paying workers and absorb other costs during the months that the pandemic shut down ongoing research across university campuses.

Supplemental funding from Congress will be needed for many projects to make it across the finish line, higher education groups have warned lawmakers. And other costs for personal protective equipment and restarting abandoned experiments figured into a $26 billion request for new federal aid.

Career Plans Disrupted

The immediate effect for grad students is the potential for delayed graduations or completion of dissertations needed to land a job in a campus lab. The more long-term concern for science advocates is that fewer jobs will be there for younger scientists because of spending cuts by colleges.

“Literally everything about the higher education experience for graduate professional students is being affected by Covid,” said Brad Sommer, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students.

Delayed graduation dates for many students could mean they leave with bigger debt loads, said Gwen Chodur, a doctoral student in nutritional biology at the University of California, Davis. Chodur’s research into the link between fat intake and heart disease was delayed because her lab couldn’t recruit new study participants during the pandemic. UC graduate students can receive a one-year extension of teaching stipends from the school—a step that not every university has taken.

“Students who through no fault of their own are going to take longer than expected to finish could find themselves stuck with a $15,000-a-year bill because work was interrupted by the pandemic,” Chodur said.

‘May Be Out of Luck’

Budget cuts have created new challenges for researchers just entering the job market like Sukrit Singh, a computational biophysicist, who completed his doctoral degree this year at Washington University in St. Louis.

As the pandemic has persisted, several promising opportunities in academia and the private sector fell through because of hiring freezes, he said.

“To put it as bluntly as possible, the obstacles that have come up have impacted my ability to do research,” Singh said of the prolonged job search. “It’s preventing me from actively working on Covid research now.”

The ripple effects of research disruptions extend to undergraduate students as well. Seniors this fall who hoped to work in a lab in preparation for graduate school or medical school found fewer open spots at regional research universities like Oakland, said David Stone, chief research officer at the school.

“Those students are scrambling because labs can’t take as many people,” he said. “If they don’t get it, they may be out of luck. When you can’t put students in the labs, how can you get them to do the work?”

Higher education groups fear the impact of Covid-19 will be felt in particular by underrepresented student groups, especially women and other caregivers.

Gloria Blackwell, senior vice president of fellowships and programs at the American Association of University Women, said several academics with funding from the organization had job offers rescinded in the spring as universities slashed budgets. Others struggled to write dissertations after losing access to campus child care.

“We can’t assume we’re going to pick up where we left off,” she said.

Looking to Congress

The U.S. had begun to lag global competitors like Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan in research and development investment well before the pandemic began, Deborah L. Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, told lawmakers on the House Budget Committee in July. That’s despite increased federal spending on R&D between 2000 and 2017.

Disruptions from the pandemic now threaten further setbacks to U.S. research while other countries make big investments in R&D, some lawmakers fear.

A bipartisan proposal (H.R. 7308 and S. 4286) would provide $26 billion through federal research agencies to help cover the mounting costs for colleges and universities that produce new scientists and academics. A separate proposal (H.R. 8044) would create a two-year $500 million fellowship program at the National Science Foundation targeting students whose job prospects were disrupted by the pandemic.

Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who introduced the House proposal for new research aid, called the challenges for research universities a “crisis.”

“Aside from studies being shut down, researchers themselves are at risk of losing their jobs,” she said. “The impact on younger researchers and graduate students could have a wave effect.”

If additional research funding can’t be included in a comprehensive Covid package before the November elections, DeGette said she would push to pass legislation during the lame-duck session.

“Time’s a wasting here,” she said. “We need to act soon.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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