Reflections on 2020, Looking Towards 2021

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It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways, what a year 2020 was. Our principal focus throughout the year, of course, was on COVID-19 and its disruptions on NIH-supported research and the workforce. Its effect can still be felt, even many months in, and with various grant flexibilities we put into place.

Though the stress it has caused will be with us for some time longer, our response to this public health emergency was not the only story that will continue into 2021. Our work towards ensuring safe work environments free from harassment, encouraging dialogue on peer review integrity, protecting our nation’s intellectual innovation from undue influence, tackling disparities in funding, and staying vigilant online will be with us this new year too.

Last year also saw the roll-out of an  exciting new early-stage investigator program (reminder that applications are due January 26th) . Positive trends, as reported in February, continued for how many people NIH grants supported in FY 2019, with 2020 data coming soon. And, over 11,000 people attended our first-ever virtual seminar on grant funding and administration—something we may not have ever tried if it were not for our current situation.

From struggles to successes, 2020 deserves a look back. Right before the holidays, I sat down with Dr. David Kosub from the NIH Office of Extramural Research’s communication shop to reflect on 2020 and what may be in store for the year ahead. I invite you to watch our conversation below (running time: 17 minutes / transcript)  and hope you have a happy, healthy, and safe new year!

Here are some brief highlights from our conversation:

Q: How did 2020 go?

A: In some respects, of course, we had some major problems in 2020. That goes without saying. Some severe disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in other respects, some very interesting and positive things happened.

Q: What worked well in 2020?

A: On the extramural side, we had to make decisions about flexibilities and accommodations we could make. We had to work quickly with other parts of the government…communicate messages about what was happening and about reassurance…I think what was remarkable was that we are actually able to make all these decisions and for the most part, they turned out okay.

Q: Have you had conversations with other organizations that represent scientists, and what can you share from that that you think might be relevant going forward?

A: I think that, no big surprises here, the worries are, what’s the future of the workforce going to look like? How are we going to weather the financial hits?…What are we going to do about reductions in hiring and promotions? We saw that survey…in Science that the number of new faculty positions had declined by 70 percent. If that’s even half true, we’ve got a very serious problem. So we have had an opportunity to engage in quite a bit of dialogue, and I think this has helped us to appreciate just how anxious and nervous people are about the state of the research in general and the workforce in particular.

Q: How might we actually attempt to address all of these issues? A strategic way we’re looking at moving forward?

A: [On the one hand, we have seen some major changes in strategic direction that have enabled us to make discoveries about {COVID-19}], develop preventive strategies, develop diagnostic tests, develop treatments, test treatments, conduct trials and do all that in ways that are much, much faster and more streamlined than what we’ve seen before…on the other side, we have other parts of research that went through major disruptions this past year. And the question is, what’s going to happen there? I read an interesting article…by Erin Gibson from Stanford. She and her colleagues talked about a reset…So reset does not mean go back to normal because normal wasn’t so great…She and her colleagues had a number of ideas for government, for academia, for scientists. I think these are some of the things that we’re going to need to be thinking about is, how do we move towards a different direction, a better direction than we were in before?

Q: What are you most hopeful for in the New Year?

A: What I’m most hopeful for is that this thing comes to an end and…without having to worry that we or our loved ones or our dear friends will come down with a life-threatening illness. I think that’s perhaps the most important thing. Okay, another thing I’m hopeful for is that our IT systems will be robust and secure…and finally…I hope that this will be an opportunity for all of us, and by all of us, I mean everyone in our country and really around the world, to appreciate the value of science. We were dealing with an unbelievably serious problem, and the way we’re going to solve this problem is through science… and through all of us working together to figure out how we can best leverage science and the scientific method to make those solutions available to everybody in a fair and equitable way.

One comment

  1. Greetings for a sparkling 2021 filled with scientific productivity and ambitious achievements!

    NIH USA snapshots for 2020 were reflective of global collaborative professional developments.

    Actively participating in the NIH USA 2020 Seminar/Conference provided me critical research insights in the scientific research arena!

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