The pandemic has cost lives and livelihoods, but many scientists C&EN spoke to were positive about the future. Here are some of the reasons why.
Science and scientists in the spotlight
Ever since the first genome sequence of the novel coronavirus was released to the world in February 2020, science has been supercharged. The speed and volume of discovery over the past year have been remarkable, with researchers managing to unravel the molecular details of the virus, understand how it spreads and who is most at risk, and invent tests, drugs, and vaccines to tackle it. The public has seen what scientists can do under pressure.
Throughout 2020, clinical trial data regularly garnered headlines, and certain academics emerged as authoritative voices of the pandemic.
“There’s a group of people who have become almost household names,” says Holden Thorp, chemist and editor in chief of the Science family of journals. Early on, Pall Thordarson, a chemist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, became a viral sensation for explaining how something as simple as washing your hands can protect against infections. In Germany, podcasts about the pandemic by virologist Christian Drosten, who developed the first diagnostic test for SARS-CoV-2, became must-listens for the German-speaking public. And Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, emerged as the steady source of advice in the US and overseas—he also became a popular icon, with his image appearing on T-shirts, socks, and coffee mugs.
Scientists who spoke to C&EN believe that the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, has improved during the pandemic, as the public closely followed the development of vaccines. Companies’ rapid mobilization also highlighted that science is collaborative, works across borders, and is performed by diverse teams. “Hopefully, this will be seen more unambiguously as a triumph for science,” Thorp says.
And the public has gotten an up-close view of the people who do science, says Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “This is a chance for the world, but particularly for those of us in American society, to see people who are from working- and middle-class families going to the top in science and helping humankind. This is an opportunity for our chemists and life scientists to be making the point that this work is for all of us—for women, for people of color, for first-generation college students—and you can make a difference.” The attention could inspire the next generation of scientists—hopefully a more diverse one.
People are influenced by their life experiences and what excites them, says Malika Jeffries-EL, a chemistry professor and associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Boston University. “We’re going to have a huge surge of interest in things like immunology and fields related to viruses and vaccine development.”
Science itself has advanced dramatically in the last year, with discoveries rolling out at breathtaking speed. Terms like “space race” have been used to describe the rapid development of vaccines, but Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, points out that scientists also made impressive strides in developing diagnostics, establishing testing capacity, and expanding our fundamental understanding of the virus.
“We did science in ways that people did not think we could, driven by this sense of urgency, which we all say that every day counts,” Collins says. “This is a pandemic that is taking lives and destroying economies, and there’s no excuse for anybody arguing for delay.”
Collaborations and data sharing
The year 2020 also saw more scientists embrace preprints—articles published before peer review—and data sharing across borders and disciplines.
“The preprint server business has been given a giant boost from this,” says Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical chemist and author of the popular In the Pipeline blog.
According to the Dimensions COVID-19 data set, researchers have published over 38,000 SARS-CoV-2 preprints since the beginning of 2020. James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, says the pandemic has shown that when “the stakes are really high,” researchers can work quickly and create better systems for disseminating data. The real question, he says, is whether those changes in publishing behavior will remain postpandemic.
More generally, researchers see the way that scientists have cooperated as a huge positive. Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, for example, could not have been developed so quickly—it went from discovery to distribution in a mere 11 months—had the company not had a long-standing partnership with researchers at the NIH. And big pharma firms have been collaborating with one another to find novel antivirals for this pandemic and the next one, sharing expertise and data in unprecedented ways. Open-science collaborations have also sprung up between academic groups, such as the COVID Moonshot effort, which is screening potential antivirals at facilities in England and Israel.
Collins at the NIH says most of his time last year was spent “trying to bring together all of the partners that could accelerate progress, and making sure that any of the barriers to those kinds of partnerships got knocked down.” And researchers from all sectors “were completely willing to share and work together in fashions that traditionally have been more difficult.”
“I’m hoping that this emphasis on international collaborations will continue in the research community,” says Magdalena Skipper, editor in chief of Nature. “But I hope it will also be taken up as an example beyond the research community itself,” she adds, noting that while scientists have collaborated on a global scale, policy makers have worked much more locally.
Much of that collaboration has naturally occurred in the virtual world, opening up opportunities for partnerships that otherwise might not have materialized. As Marie Heffern of the University of California, Davis, points out, setting up a cross-institutional collaboration is now just a matter of arranging a video call. Group leaders can meet and discuss projects or take part in conferences they normally couldn’t have attended. At the same time, postdocs and students have been able to interact more readily with big-name academics through online meetings.
University of Michigan chemistry professor Alison Narayan points to a virtual biocatalysis meeting she set up with researchers at Merck & Co. and the University of Manchester. The regular meeting has grown to include almost 500 people and is “a wonderful platform for students to present their science,” Narayan says, adding that she wants to continue these meetings after the pandemic.
“When you have a pressing need, like the worst pandemic in 102 years, it does require organizing science in new, creative, and productive ways,” the NIH’s Collins says. “And that has been amazing to see happening and to have some role pushing forward.”
Flexibility and support at work
Stay-at-home orders forced a marked increase in flexible working, which in turn showed that work can still be accomplished when people are not in the lab. In the face of these challenges, scientists got creative about keeping up their work.
For some, working from home has increased productivity and raised awareness of other people’s personal challenges. “When you’re on a Zoom call, you see someone’s whole world,” Narayan says. That experience can be eye opening for mentors and colleagues and bring a person’s needs to the forefront.
Merck & Co. chemist Rebecca Ruck says flexible working has taught her and her colleagues how to be more creative. “I hope that affords people—men, women, everybody—greater flexibility in how they work,” she says. Luis Echegoyen, president of the American Chemical Society in 2020, says the productivity of his team at the University of Texas at El Paso actually increased, as members finally had the time for papers and review articles that had been waiting for someone to write them (ACS publishes C&EN). His small group published 15 articles or reviews in 2020, including 3 in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. “That’s an immediate, positive consequence of the pandemic in our group,” Echegoyen says.
Professors are also learning how to use technology to support student learning and to train the next generation of researchers. Where some in-person teaching was allowed, many universities prioritized lab sessions over classroom seminars or lectures, moving more instruction online. Where all teaching went remote, science departments adapted by designing lab work that could be done at home. Other professors built online versions of practical experiments.
Moving classes online with short notice was a daunting challenge that made building rapport and community more difficult—particularly for newer students who may have met their teachers only virtually. Professors say some students have understandably struggled with this shift, but online instruction can improve digital literacy and time management, thus helping prepare students for work after university.
Many teachers are taking a more “flipped classroom” approach by asking students to watch videos and read specific texts before class. The class is then used for active learning and problem solving rather than a lecture, says Mary Boyd, provost and chemistry professor at Berry College. She praises the community of educators that has built up to support best practices and online teaching strategies. “That’s been pretty great,” Boyd says.
Some of the pandemic’s negative impacts may be short lived, while others are likely to reverberate for years.
Science has long struggled to reflect the diversity of the world it serves. Less than 5% of people who earned PhDs in chemistry in the US in 2018 were Black, according to the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity. And recent data show a dearth of people of color and women working as professors in chemistry departments at top schools. The pandemic has only amplified those problems. Because COVID-19 has disproportionately affected communities of color, many worry that it will prevent people from those communities from getting college or advanced degrees. And more women than men have been sidelined in their education and careers as they took on the lion’s share of extra childcare duties associated with lockdowns.
“The pandemic has been a magnifier of inequality,” Berry College’s Boyd says. Challenges range from finding a quiet workspace in small or overcrowded households to having to defer education altogether to help with family or to earn money, as many lost jobs. While much of the world has moved online for classes and conferences, those without reliable internet access or technology have often been left behind.
Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, the assistant dean for diversity and inclusion and a chemistry education professor at Louisiana State University, agrees that the pandemic has magnified inequities. “The transition to online learning has offered this opportunity for disruptive innovation, but the ability to take advantage of this time is very economically driven,” she says
When Wilson-Kennedy considers the ways 2020 affected the culture of science, she points to not just the pandemic but the Black Lives Matter movement and the increase of deadly hurricanes resulting from climate change. “Black and Brown communities, economically disadvantaged folks, and our working poor are disproportionately impacted by all of these,” she says. Because of that, Wilson-Kennedy wonders how we will “cultivate the talents of young people who are passionate about answering these challenges, knowing that even right now, we have a host of folks who have talent but who have different levels of access to education.” If we are going to have sustainable change around supporting diversity in the scientific workforce and in academia, she says, “we have to be extremely intentional about it.”
“Universities were already starting to have a slow awakening about the fact that the status quo is not effectively serving everybody,” Boston University’s Jeffries-EL says. “I think people are starting to have an honest conversation about what is really the issue in the pipeline,” she adds. Sara D. Leonhardt, a professor of chemical ecology at Technical University of Munich, says, “The problems we had before—which were always there—will be even more severe in the future because of the pandemic. I think that’s the really ugly part.” Leonhardt organized an open letter signed by researchers in Germany who argue that the German government needs to support early-career researchers by listening to more-diverse sources of advice, prioritizing opening childcare, and committing to extra financial support in the wake of the pandemic. She is concerned there has been little awareness of how unequally the pandemic has affected different groups—specifically women, those with child- or elder-care duties, and people of color.
Even if the obvious effects of the pandemic on these scientists last only a year—fewer publications or grants, for instance—the impact could be dramatic, Science’s Thorp says. As an example, he cites the 2008 recession, which derailed careers for years and pushed many out of science entirely. “Almost every time we’ve had some kind of severe problem, it’s always magnified whatever inequities were there to start.”
The next generation of scientists
Anyone who works at the bench knows that there’s just no way to make up for the time lost in the lab during this pandemic. And while that reality is tough on all bench scientists, the situation is particularly acute for assistant professors just starting their labs, postdoctoral scholars with contracts that are just a year or two long, and undergraduates who are missing out on laboratory experiences.
Heffern at UC Davis worries about how the pandemic lockdowns have upset her lab’s momentum. When you’re working toward tenure, such interruptions in research and creating a team can set back early-career researchers.
“Postdocs are all about productivity in a short period of time,” UTEP’s Echegoyen says. With such short contracts, these scientists are losing some of the most important years for establishing their careers. “The most disruptive part that I can see of this for science is the future,” he says.
Some fear that pandemic-related productivity gaps will be perceived poorly by funding agencies. “In the short term, obviously funders and others need to make sure we’re not unfairly discriminating against those who haven’t been pumping out grant proposals,” the University of Sheffield’s Wilsdon says.
Another fear is that budgets will shrink because of economic factors and that much of the remaining funding will be funneled into COVID-19-related work. “You can sort of frame the challenge now in terms of the dangers of COVID-ization of research funding,” Wilsdon says. There are questions about how to fund research as well as how to balance the funding so that important areas don’t lose out.
With summer research experiences and internships for undergraduate and high school students canceled for 2020 and likely for 2021, several researchers point to the lasting impact those lost opportunities for research experience will have on the chemistry pipeline. “That’s usually where the premed students decide they actually want to be chemists,” the University of Michigan’s Narayan says.
Merck’s Ruck echoes that concern. “Without that hands-on experience, will these students ever fall in love with chemistry?” she says. “I worry that that will have implications for the overall talent flow into the field.”
Politicization of science
Followers of the climate change movement know that politicization of science isn’t new. But the pandemic has made the human toll of this phenomenon much more immediate, with people refusing to wear masks on the advice of politicians and the White House suppressing scientific discourse.
“By politicizing science, we denied the fundamental tools that we needed to tackle a biological and social problem,” says Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. We’re now seeing the consequence in loss of life, economic upheaval, and other untold suffering, he says. “I think the denial of the validity of science and the politicization of it will be held against us for decades to come.”
Thorp at Science says researchers haven’t done a good job of describing the scientific process to the public, which is why it’s been so easy for science to become politicized. Take the shifting guidance on face masks. Officials first advised against wearing them out of concern that supplies would become stretched and that the priority should be that health-care workers get masks. Then, as scientists learned more about the airborne transmission of COVID-19 and the ability for asymptomatic people to spread the disease, they urged people to wear masks to protect others. Later, scientists learned that masks also provide protection to the wearer.
“If you’re a scientist, that makes perfect sense,” Thorp says. “If you’re out there in the public, just consuming sound bites, that makes it look like we don’t know what we’re talking about. And that’s a product of the fact that it’s much easier to just tell people that science is this textbook full of stuff that you have to memorize and not a process and a way of thinking that’s carried out by people.”
Scientists haven’t done the hard work of explaining how the scientific method is connected to important scientific advances, Thorp says. Instead, he adds, “we bring them their new drug or their better Wi-Fi or their profitable companies.”
Not all the dramatic changes—positive or negative—might last. Experts weighed in on the biggest uncertainties.
Travel and meetings
Prepandemic, many principal investigators were rarely in the lab; they were often on the road, giving talks or attending meetings. The pandemic stopped travel overnight.
The University of Michigan’s Narayan had given 17 talks in the first 2 months of 2020 as part of her “tenure tour”—visiting schools before she applied for tenure. “What this has taught me is that I don’t need to be traveling constantly,” says Narayan, who now expects to be more selective about her travel. “That’s maybe better for me personally, and better for my family and my research group.”
Virtual talks have many advantages. More people can attend, including those who might not otherwise get to hear from a Nobel Prize winner or other high-profile scientists. They make it easier for smaller schools to get big-name speakers, are a vast saving for cash-strapped organizations, and are much better for the environment.
“In South America, we are far from everywhere,” says Ana Flávia Nogueira, a chemistry professor at the University of Campinas. So the move to virtual conferences has widened access for her students because they don’t have to pay for travel, and fees for online meetings tend to be lower. At the same time, she says, the most important aspect of attending conferences for her is the ability to make personal connections with other scientists with whom she might collaborate. That’s tough to do online. Nogueira thinks that the investments made in online meetings mean that many future conferences will be a hybrid of virtual and in-person events.
But “there are certain aspects of collaboration and connection that are much, much harder to achieve purely through online interaction,” the University of Sheffield’s Wilsdon says.
You can rarely see your audience on Zoom, and you can’t make the same personal connections with potential students or collaborators. That’s especially concerning for early-career scientists, who are supposed to be meeting people and building their lab’s reputation. “COVID has really made that quite difficult,” UC Davis’s Heffern says.
Online meetings are so easy to schedule that everyone does it. “In June and July it was an invitation a day,” Echegoyen at UTEP says. “You realize that all of a sudden people have gotten trigger happy.”
Lack of travel has also been a mixed bag for scientists who have family responsibilities—especially women. Less travel can mean more time with your family, but it can also make working harder if you are expected to do childcare. “If you are still at home, you’re expected to do all the home things even while you’re technically working because you’re at a conference,” Berry College’s Boyd says. “You don’t get the separation that you would get.”
So what is the fate of conferences? Boyd has yet to see a way to do virtual conferences well. The talks themselves are just as good—maybe better, she admits—but sitting in front of a screen all day is tiring. And “we miss the important part of attending a conference, which is the networking and getting to know other people,” she says.
But Merck’s Ruck says that in many cases, what individual scientists lose online is made up for by increased access for people who might not be able to travel.
In 2019, the Empowering Women in Organic Chemistry conference had 180 attendees at its inaugural, in-person event. In 2020, the online version attracted 800 people from all over the globe. Ruck, who helps organize that meeting, thinks that most conferences will be a hybrid of in-person and online going forward.
“I’m going to be very content to give many more talks from my living room,” Ruck says.
Echegoyen says it’s going to take a long time before people feel comfortable going to an event with 15,000 to 20,000 people, like a typical ACS meeting. But he thinks some new technology will make virtual meetings more palatable. “I think we’re going to come out of it changed, that’s for sure.”
Distanced lab culture
Almost all faculty and students were hit hard by the pandemic, but the work and productivity of lab scientists probably suffered most. Research labs worldwide shut down or at a minimum operated on vastly altered schedules. At some universities and research centers, only lab work directly related to COVID-19 was allowed to continue.
“We had to redirect a lot of the scientific energy towards this pressing global pandemic,” while at the same time keeping safe those who remained in person, Collins says. That was true at the NIH’s Maryland campus, where most labs, including Collins’s, shut down. “And that doesn’t turn out so well if you’re somebody who needs a lab bench, so we did lose momentum for things that weren’t directly related to COVID,” he says.
When labs did open, it was often in small groups with distance required between lab members. Normally bustling benches were limited to one or two people. And lab mates couldn’t run into each other in the hallway or share their latest successes and failures as they happened.
That has removed a lot of the spontaneity that is a regular part of making discoveries, Heffern says.
But limited time in the lab has forced people to think carefully about how they’re using that time. “My students are getting a lot better at planning experiments and analyzing their data,” she says.
Shifts have also made research teams work together more closely—you have to carefully plan to hand off an experiment to a colleague at the end of your day, according to the University of Michigan’s Narayan. “Ultimately, I think those skills are going to serve people really well in their training and launching into different careers,” she says. This will also help move chemistry away from the idea that “you should be chained to your hood 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she adds.
Stability of schools
Academic institutions worldwide have undoubtedly been changed by the pandemic. Beyond shutting down labs, many moved classes online as the pandemic spread and remained completely or partially remote for the rest of the year. That put many US schools that were no longer getting fees for residence halls or meal plans in a financially precarious position.
If schools can open their campuses in fall 2021, “the ones that had money will probably be OK,” Thorp says. “And the ones that ran out of money? A lot of those are going to have a hard time recovering.”
Schools with endowments or consistent government support should be able to cover losses. But those that rely on tuition to pay salaries and fund their day-to-day operations don’t have that safety net.
Many students dropped out or deferred enrollment, which put tuition-reliant schools in a tough position. The enrollment decline has been especially precipitous among international students, who often pay full tuition but have no way to get to the US during a pandemic. At the same time, universities have had to shut down medical services, facility rentals, sports events, and other revenue streams that keep their campuses functioning.
In addition, Echegoyen says, students are questioning paying the same tuition and fees when classes are fully or partially online. “Will a whole new economic model evolve for universities?” he wonders.
No matter what happens, “there’s going to be a lot of belt tightening” at tuition-driven universities, Echegoyen says. In many cases, administrators and lab technicians were the first to face furloughs and cuts. But prolonged hiring freezes will mean that many graduate students and postdocs won’t be able to find their first academic positions. “A lot of people are going to find themselves without jobs,” Echegoyen says.
Most at risk for job losses and cuts might be universities that rely on their medical schools and associated hospitals for support. The pandemic has caused many to curtail outpatient clinical and elective procedures, the NIH’s Collins says. “No question about it, it is going to take a long time for universities to recover.”
This story was updated on Feb. 1, 2021, to correct the affiliation of Pall Thordarson. He works at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, not the University of Sydney.