Covid-19 pandemic could harm science: ‘Entire datasets are now unusable’

Photo: Shutterstock, DUB

This winter, Sierksma twice saw a dash in her dataset in science museum Nemo. She executes face-to-face behavioral experiments with children about receiving help, which makes her dependent on schools, museums, and daycares. When those closed up, her research had to be put on hold.

“Months of work, and all the associated costs, have amounted to nothing”, Sierksma says. Moving her experiments online was not an option. “We received totally different results.” Because these differences were due to “an enormous amount of different explanations”, Sierksma is left with uninterpretable study results.

Fewer new studies
The consequences of the Covid pandemic on science appear to be long-term, American scientists warned in the scientific journal Nature. Scientists devoted less time to research and more to education at the start of the pandemic. The amount of new research projects also decreased, and this development can be spotted in all research areas.

Dutch scientists too, noticed that the additional time spent on education came at the expense of their research hours, writes the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Covid pandemic disproportionately hit different researchers. Female academics with young children had the most trouble managing both their work and their families. Over half of PhD-candidates, postdocs and assistant professors were slowed down due to the pandemic and were unable to finish their research projects on time. They wrote fewer grants and most often said that they were worried about their future prospects.

Skewed results
The halting of Sierksma’s research, therefore, was not an exception. Other types of studies were hit too, and the resulting faults are sometimes irreparable. Researchers who execute longitudinal studies, for instance, are dependent on different measurement moments (every few months or once a year) where they examine their findings.

“They have very specific hypotheses about what changes, and what drives these changes. They can’t just adjust those”, Sierksma says. “Due to the speed with which children develop, missing a measurement moment can already cause hugely skewed results. That’s horrible, because entire datasets resulting from years-long studies are at risk of becoming unusable.”

The damage is not just limited to scientific research that had to be paused during the pandemic, but in the case of longitudinal studies, also research that was conducted prior to the start of the crisis. The gaps that have arisen in studies could cause “delays in knowledge acquirement”, Sierksma fears. “Some studies are unsalvageable, because funding has run out. Those research questions will remain unanswered.” 

Studies that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic are still in competition with unaffected research projects. “Researchers that were still able to publish therefore have a better chance of getting jobs. Research that was paused loses out: it will not get attention, it will not lead to jobs, and I fear that it will slowly disappear.”

Some PhD-candidates will also have to deal with delays. The quality of research that has been affected by the Covid crisis is worse due to follow-up studies that were postponed or due to the necessary adjustments of research questions and methods. Climbing the academic ladder, for them, is not just dependent on their ability, but also on coincidence; was their PhD-research able to go ahead, for instance?

“These PhD-candidates are at a disadvantage on the academic job market. They too must compete with other researchers that were able to perform their research as planned. Jobs, prizes and funds are awarded based on output: their publications, the journals in which they publish, their presentations on conferences and other acquired funds. The gaps in productivity have nothing to do with what they are able to do, but they are still punished for them. Aside from that, these gaps are not divided equally: some research groups have been hit much harder, but they still end up in one pile.”

No clear picture
The UU came up with a prolongation arrangement, financed by the so-called Covid fund, which allows for additional contract time for PhD-candidates and postdocs if they have experienced delays due to the crisis. The arrangement gives them a maximum of six months additional research time and is still ongoing. “But additional money and time won’t fix everything. Researchers won’t really benefit from that if their results have gone awry or if they have been delayed for more than six months.”

According to Sierksma it is worrying that universities do not have a clear picture of which study projects have been hit by the pandemic, and where any gaps in knowledge have occurred. After all, Sierksma says that “researchers’ stories have been very different” and this problem has likely occurred in many research fields. “Jurists that use archival records for their research, were unable to access the archive. Collecting data abroad for Anthropology or Evolutionary Biology study projects was also impossible.”

And the stinger: “Schools are repairing the damage caused by the lockdown and are still coping with staff absenteeism. Receiving researchers is low on the list of priorities for universities. If the virus resurges again, it is important that research can go ahead as planned. It is still unclear how the university will anticipate this”, Sierksma says. “It is still impacting my studies. I’m making sure that any of the new projects I have started are able to go ahead online as well, if necessary. I’ve said that I would prefer face-to-face data collection not to occur in winter. I’ll travel to Nemo in summer.”

Faculty research directors have also spoken up about the delayed study projects due to the Covid crisis, says Mark Pen, Head of Research Policy at the University Corporate Offices. Although there are large differences from field to field. “Within Humanities, for instance, study projects have generally suffered less than those at Geosciences that require fieldwork or those at Social Sciences that perform human-related research. Experimental research in laboratories was also forced to stop. For corona-related research have as many exceptions as possible been made.” 

“Many researchers have suffered from the shutdown of fieldwork and the closing of laboratories. It is still unclear how and for how long these effects on research will stay.” During the first lockdown Utrecht University examined how research could proceed, according to Pen. "During that period, we did not make an inventory of research areas and projects that have suffered the most because of the Covid pandemic."

Pen says they are looking forward to the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences report about the impact of the pandemic on scientists and scientific practice. It will likely be published in September. "These insights are of great importance to our university, because the stories  about the impact of the long-term effects are quite different."

"These are important signals, but we also don't know much about the long-term effects. If a new Covid variant emerges that will lead to another lockdown, the university will probably have to fall back on new corona measures", says Pen. "There are no new roadmaps for research ready that can prevent obstacles for researchers in the event of a resurgence."

Tags: coronavirus | PhD | postdoc