News & Analysis Physics World  June 2021

Science has moved online during the pandemic

Home truths Half of respondents to a global survey reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a “significant impact” on their work. (Courtesy: iStock/FOTOGRAFIA INC)

Science is being done differently since the start of the pandemic last year – but the pace of effort has not slowed. That’s the conclusion of a survey conducted by the professional network ResearchGate. Almost all the 2000 respondents to the survey noted that coronavirus had affected their work in some way, with half reporting a “significant impact”. Nevertheless, it found that science is still progressing but is now being done mostly online. 

Released in April, the survey says that – with limited access to labs and field work – experiments and data generation have reduced dramatically. Instead of taking new data, researchers are analysing existing data, reviewing literature and working through backlogs of unwritten publications. Indeed, while 38% of researchers reported spending less time on experimental work, 64% said they were spending similar or more time than usual planning future experiments or analysing existing data. Half of the respondents are spending more time writing and peer-reviewing papers, 40% are spending longer reading scientific literature, and 40% are spending more time focused on funding.

The results also highlight a huge shift in working arrangements. Four out of five respondents (81%) said they were working from home, although 35% of those are not doing so exclusively. This shift has affected researchers differently, with some commenting that it has allowed them to focus on writing up their results while others say that the lack of new data has impacted their ability to submit funding proposals. Almost three-quarters of respondents reported spending less time attending conferences or other in-person events. But scientists have found other ways to connect, with almost a third spending more time collaborating, and another third reporting collaborating at similar levels to before the pandemic.

Flaminio Squazzoni, a sociologist at the University of Milan who was not involved with the survey, told Physics World that the conclusions are unsurprising but he adds that the focus on COVID-19 research has drained resources from other areas, reducing scientific diversity and exploration. Squazzoni says that one interesting line of research post-pandemic will be to understand which communities and disciplines have been disadvantaged during the pandemic because they are “less relevant, sexy or COVID-19 targetable”.

Bruce Drinkwater, an experimental physicist from the University of Bristol, says that the findings tally with his experience running a research group, but he feels that science has slowed down. “My colleagues and I are still working hard and making progress, it’s just that the progress is harder and slower,” he says. “Some of the aspects that have increased such as analysing old data and publishing side projects feel like scientists ‘muddling on’ rather than likely to lead to exciting breakthroughs.”

Michael Allen