Continued Impact of COVID-19 on Biomedical Research

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It’s been over eight months since the COVID-19 pandemic crisis struck, changing every facet of life as we knew it. The U.S. biomedical research enterprise was not spared, as lockdowns and severe restrictions on activities took hold across the country. At the time, we offered our perspectives on efforts we could take to cushion the shock. Since that time, much has happened. COVID-19 research has blossomed with impressive results including FDA approval of a therapeutic agent (remdesivir, which was found to have value in a large-scale NIH-funded trial), development of several candidate vaccines that have already made to pivotal Phase 3 trials, and the rapid development of a variety of diagnostic testing platforms.

However, research unrelated to COVID has seen a different picture. As early as April 2020, the Congressional Research Service posted a report on expected “Effects of COVID-19 on the Federal Research and Development Enterprise.” The report stated that implementation of social distancing guidelines was likely to lead to:

  • Closure of many laboratories.
  • Restricted or loss of access to facilities and equipment.
  • Cancellation of scientific and technical conferences.
  • Supply chain disruptions and problems acquiring new equipment.
  • Delayed or uncertain graduation schedules and career prospects for trainees and early career scientists.

Over the last six months, nearly all these predictions have come to pass. Across the country laboratories were shut down (or nearly so), non-COVID clinical trial operations were halted or delayed, and U.S. faculty openings fell by 70%. An international survey study found that the pandemic had greater adverse effects on bench scientists, on women scientists, and on scientists with young children. Another study reported productivity declines among women scientists, many now shouldering both child care and educational responsibilities.

Last August the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) issued a report, “Research Impact Under COVID-19: Financial Crisis and the ‘Pandemic Normal” that describes a framework to quantify the adverse effects of COVID-19 mitigation measures on the conduct of government-funded academic research. Research productivity declines were attributed to mandated remote status, reduced use of core facilities and shared resources, inefficient work patterns (e.g., shift work, more down time due to cleaning, greater need for PPE, reconfigured labs), need to reestablish cell lines and animal models – and many more. These stresses are likely to persist for many more months, or longer, meaning that we are now in what the report refers as a “pandemic normal.”

Given these known stresses, and likely more to come, how to proceed? In June, Gibson and colleagues published an interesting essay in which they noted that we should not respond by merely yearning to return back to normal, since the normal state was not that great. They wrote that the pandemic served to highlight longstanding problems in academic research, including a complicated system that “is catered towards senior-level researchers,” an observation supported by data from NIH and elsewhere. The authors argued that the pandemic offers an “unprecedented opportunity to reset,” with particular attention paid to early career researchers. They offer a number of recommendations: for funders they call for simplification of procedures, policies that decrease dependency on preliminary data, extension of early stage investigator status, and no-cost extensions for existing grants.

The NIH is already implementing a number of these recommendations, including:

While these steps may be helpful, we recognize that productivity losses are extensive and present daunting challenges (financial and otherwise) for scientists attempting to restart their research programs. While each NIH institute and center will be considering its strategic objectives and scientific priorities, the agency as a whole will support the following three priorities:

  • Early career scientists, including trainees, K-grant awardees, and early stage investigators.
  • Meritorious established investigators at risk for losing all funding.
  • Certain high-priority clinical trials in which completion of enrollment and follow-up are critical for project success.

We are not through this – which brings me to one final item. We previously announced two extramural surveys, one of institutional leaders and one of scientists and scientific staff. If you haven’t already, please fill out the survey if you received one. We need your input to make the best data-driven decisions. If you have already filled out the survey – thank you!

In the weeks to months ahead we will continue to keep in touch with you, in these pages and elsewhere, as we navigate the “pandemic normal,” which, hopefully before too long will transform to a “post-pandemic” state.

11 Comments

  1. Please, please, please, do NOT forget about New Investigators (NIs). Many NIs are left out of ESI status – especially i) two-scientist families in which postdoc/faculty job search often takes years longer because of timing issues, ii) those who have trained using complex systems (mouse-focused postdoc typically far longer than computational), and iii) those who take a significant Postdoc pivot to enter new field, among other situations. The obsession with ESI status makes very little sense (never sure what PhD defense has to do with starting a laboratory) – and these protective mechanisms continue to leave NIs (those who recently started labs without funding) in the dust.

    1. I second this concern. This is also an issue for people who lost productivity during their postdocs due to having children, and therefore did longer postdocs than they otherwise might have. It seems to me that the metric of being “early stage” should be based on when a person started their independent research program, not when they got their PhD.

    2. Yes – I, too, am adversely impacted by a focus on “early-stage” instead of “new” investigator considerations. Following my PhD, I was focused on teaching, clinical practice, and administration and did not embark upon my research-intenstive career until 10 years post-PhD, at which point I no longer qualified as “early stage.”

      It seems there was a shift away from supporting “new investigators” a couple of years ago, making it even more difficult for women who are more than 10 years post-PhD to obtain NIH funding.

      1. and not just new investigators – mid-career investigators are also negatively impacted by this situation, especially women – and have not been sufficiently supported by the NIH, despite Dr. Collins having promised funds for this cohort specifically.

  2. As a mid career scientist, who transitioned into research because of significant (often life threatening) genetic caused disability… I left clinical care because my progressive disabilities began creating problems in providing quality care.
    I am seeing little to no inquiries regarding how COVID is impacting the existing workforce of disabled. This would include disabled researchers.
    I own a small company doing research. There are aspects of my work related to research that I cannot do because of the significant risk of exposure. If I were university based or in a large company, replacement or support in the form of an assistant with the same clinical skill and licensure as I have would be paid for from existing indirect/overhead as it would be an accommodation under the ADA.
    But as a small research company with variable funding … this is an economic hardship. These are the type of issues facing a disabled researcher and business owner. There are few to no demographics collected on disabled entrepreneurs/business owners. There are always demographics collected on gender, sex, race and ethnicity, but rarely (if ever) on disability and impact of COVID and small businesses.

  3. As usual, mid-career scientists ignored by the NIH. Also absent is any mention that women in science have been impacted much more by the virus situation than men. What else is new?

  4. OER may be interested in these references regarding the differential negative impact on women. Note that Elsevier conducted a systematic study across all of its 2K+ journals (Squazzoni et al below) and CIHR has just posted a preprint outlining its response as a biomedical funder (Witteman et all below):

    *Andersen, Jens Peter, Mathias Wullum Nielsen, Nicole L. Simone, Resa E. Lewiss, and Reshma Jagsi. 2020. “Meta-Research: Is Covid-19 Amplifying the Authorship Gender Gap in the Medical Literature?” ArXiv Preprint May 13.
    *Frederickson, Megan. 2020. “COVID-19’s Gendered Impact on Academic Productivity.” GitHub May 11.
    *King, Molly M, and Megan E Frederickson. 2020. “The Pandemic Penalty: The Gendered Effects of COVID-19 on Scientific Productivity.” SocRxiv August.
    *Lauer, Mike. 2020. “An Early Look at Applications Submitted During the Pandemic.” Blog Post July 28. https://nexus.od.nih.gov/all/2020/07/28/an-early-look-at-applications-submitted-during-the-pandemic/.
    *Mehmani, Bahar. 2020. “The Impact of COVID-19 on Women Academics: A Large Scale Study.” LinkedIn May 14.
    *Minello, Alessandra. 2020. “The Pandemic and the Female Academic.” Nature World View April 17 (April).
    *Muric, Goran, Kristina Lerman, and Emilio Ferrara. 2020. “COVID-19 Amplifies Gender Disparities in Research.” ArXiv Preprint, 19–21.
    *Myers, Kyle R., Wei Yang Tham, Yian Yin, Nina Cohodes, Jerry G. Thursby, Marie C. *Thursby, Peter Schiffer, Joseph T. Walsh, Karim R. Lakhani, and Dashun Wang. 2020. “Unequal Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Scientists.” Nature Human Behaviour, July.
    *Shurchkov, O. 2020. “Is COVID-19 Turning Back the Clock on Gender Equality in Academia?” Medium April 23.
    *Smith, Chris, and Deirdre Watchorn. 2020. “The Pandemic Is Making It Harder for Researchers but Women Are Hit the Hardest. 4 Findings from 80 Countries.” LSE Blog Impact of Social Sciences, no. September 17.
    *Squazzoni, Flaminio, Giangiacomo Bravo, Francisco Grimaldo, Daniel Garc, Mike Farjam, and Bahar Mehmani. 2020. “No Tickets for Women in the COVID-19 Race ? A Study on Manuscript Submissions and Reviews in 2347 Elsevier Journals during the Pandemic.” SSRN.
    *Viglione, Giuliana. 2020. “Are Women Publishing Less during the Pandemic? Here’s What the Data Say.” Nature News May 20.
    *Vincent-Lamarre, Philippe, Cassidy R. Sugimoto, and Vincent Larivière. 2020. “The Decline of Women’s Research Production during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Nature Index May 19.
    *Witteman, Authors Holly O, Jenna Haverfield, and Cara Tannenbaum. 2020. “Positive Outcomes of COVID-19 Research-Related Gender Policy Changes.” BioRxiv October 26.

  5. ” An international survey study found that the pandemic had greater adverse effects on bench scientists, on women scientists, and on scientists with young children.”

    This is cited as an important finding. What are the approaches to help these individuals? As a parent of young children, with emerging coronaviruses cases in daycare facilities, I think any policy assistance with NIH funded investigators with young children would be helpful. Thank you for your consideration.

  6. – K-grant awardees should be allowed no cost extension without the requirement of 50-75% effort. This simple measure will help in a long way.

  7. In echoing others about the struggles of women with young children, who work on the bench, and are academics, it has been an awful year for me in terms of productivity and submissions. Now, I am drowning with make up exams and make up labs for students who have tested positive for COVID19 or live with someone who has. Make up exams take time to create and time to administer. As we near the end of the semester, we are barely limping through the finish line. 10% of my 31 person class (we had several students drop, the drop rate is higher than previous years) is currently quarantined, and I have to figure out how they can take a lab final, make up a lab, and take the class final. We have also had 4 named storms hit Louisiana. Meaning, that my students in the National Guard have been called up to serve and I have had to try and accomodatge their special needs. These storms also mean shutting down the lab in preparation of the storm (covering all the equipment) and making special preps for research animals, plus dealing with being out of power and cleaning up debris afterward. All while my husband can’t do the physical side of debris clean up and housework because he needs spinal surgery. All I can say about 2020 is that I’ve made it this far, and hope I can submit a few papers and write a grant over the extended break. More likely though, our elementary schools are on the verge of going all virtual and I will be home being distracted by kids and by mid December I will be caring for someone who just had surgery. See you in 2021 academic publishing and grant writing.

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