How the Coronavirus Affects Research at Colleges Worldwide

06 June 2020

The coronavirus crisis may have halted classes at many colleges and universities when their campuses closed earlier this year. But that is not the only problem the virus has created for the higher education community worldwide.

In addition to study programs, there is other important work taking place at these schools: academic research. Even with some institutions now re-opening, their laboratories and the people who work in them may face restrictions on research.

Suzanne Ortega is president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a not-for-profit group based in the United States. The council provides support to graduate school education and research projects.

Ortega told VOA that just like for everyone else, the sudden, unexpected spread of the coronavirus came as a shock to U.S. academic institutions. Luckily, many schools have been developing crisis communication and risk management plans for years. Some acted quickly, deciding not just to send students home and move classes online. They also decided which research projects to continue and which ones could be delayed.

"What happened at the institutional level really trickled down to the lab and the departmental level," said Ortega.

Abigail Larkin reviews a map database of information from Adirondack hiking trail registers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry research station in Newcomb, New York, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.
Abigail Larkin reviews a map database of information from Adirondack hiking trail registers at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry research station in Newcomb, New York, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013.

The government agencies responsible for financing most academic research in the U.S. also announced action. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation extended time limits for when researchers need to show the results of their ongoing projects. The NIH and NSF, as the two agencies are known, also advised researchers on what to do in this situation.

Some academics even decided to take their animal subjects home to care for them while campus laboratories are closed.

Wendy Streitz argues there is no denying that the coronavirus crisis will create barriers for ongoing scientific exploration. She is president of the Council on Government Relations, a group representing 190 research-heavy colleges and universities in the United States.

Delays in research can affect study findings, especially when materials must be observed continuously or have limits on their use. And travel restrictions make it unclear when field researchers studying animals or conditions in nature, for example, will get back to work.

But as concerns about the effect of the coronavirus on the world economy turn into reality, there is also the financial question, Streitz says. The NIH and NSF are working to ensure that projects stay funded. But in Britain, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support expect to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in donations this year. The two groups are among the country's biggest private fundraisers for cancer research.

"The research isn't getting done while people are idle. And when people get back to work ... there's no guarantee that the government's going to be able to come up with the funds necessary to finish the research. So I think, in the long term, we are going to see research projects that can't finish," Streitz noted.

Another concern is over what effect this might have on researchers, especially those now taking the first steps in their scientific careers, says Joanne Carney. She is the chief government relations officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Delays in research mean delays in meeting graduation requirements, she says. Also, delays of conferences and large meetings mean the new scientists will miss out on chances to meet others working in their fields.

Carney says this might limit the ability of these men and women to advance in their careers. So could decisions by many institutions to temporarily suspend efforts to fill open positions. In fact, Australia's chief scientist has warned that the country's universities may lose as many as 7,000 research positions within the next several months.

Travel restrictions have also limited the flow of international students, who represent many of the graduate student researchers in the U.S. and overseas.

Yet Carney suggests there may be some good news to come out of this. She says active university laboratories are sharing equipment and their findings like never before. And many researchers who were studying other diseases are now lending their knowledge to the fight against the coronavirus.

"This ... scientific knowledge that we are building every single day is going to continue to guide us and contribute to public health for decades to come," said Carney.

I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. 

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Words in This Story

campus(es) – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

academicadj. of or relating to schools and education

graduateadj. of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree

managementn. the act or process of controlling and dealing with something

trickle(d) downp.v. to spread from the upper levels of a society or organization to the lower levels

fund(ed) – v. to provide money for something

idleadj. not working, active, or being used

advancev. to make progress

contributev. to give something, such as money, goods, or time, to help a person, group, cause, or organization

decade(s) – n. a period of 10 years