Back to top

COVID-19 Feature / Researchers concerned about impacts of COVID-19

COVID-19 Feature / Researchers concerned about impacts of COVID-19

[iStock.com / bee32]

COVID-19 may be shining a light on science, from the race for vaccines to trials of treatments, but the pandemic is also derailing research across Canada and around the world. Impacts range from scientists unable to access their labs and equipment in closed facilities to social distancing restrictions keeping researchers away from field locations. In health and social sciences, physical distancing means in-person interactions with study participants are not possible.

“Even if researchers have access to computers for Zoom etc., the study participants may not,” says Janet Morrill, president of the University of Manitoba Faculty Association. “Research involving archival data is also cut off, again due to travel restrictions and archives being closed.”

In-person data collection cancelled

The impact is severe for research projects that were at an early stage of in-person data collection when physical distancing rules were put in place. That’s the case for Meredith Chivers, a clinical psychologist at Queen’s University studying gender and sexuality, with a focus on women’s sexuality. Her current CIHR-funded research project — in collaboration with psychologist Lori Brotto at UBC — has been significantly disrupted by the pandemic, as data collection involves lab visits by participating women.

“We’ve had funding since 2018 and we just launched data collection here at Queen’s in September of 2019 and…at the UBC site in January of 2020,” she says. “Because of the different technologies involved, it took a lot of time to build the protocols and train research coordinators in performing the data collection.”

The team was able to collect data from only four participants at UBC and 15 at Queen’s — toward a target of 180 in total — before stopping the work due to the pandemic.

As with SSHRC and NSERC, CIHR has offered funded researchers a one-year extension for their projects. For Chivers and Brotto, that means an end date of 2024 instead of 2023. “But in terms of any other financial support or continued support for our research, for example, we haven’t heard anything,” says Chivers.

Risk of losing research staff

“The Tri-Council has indicated that more monies are available for grad students. We’re glad and grateful for that,” she says. “But the gap here is in being able to retain the highly qualified personnel on the research staff as research assistants, coordinators and associates working full time on this project right now. We’re facing the possibility of having to lay off those research staff and losing all the investment we’ve made over the past two years in training them in all these technologies as well as all of these processes.”

Research staff are currently working on various aspects of the project from home. “We don’t have enough data right now to be processed, so what we are doing is having these staff execute procedures that we would normally leave to the end of the data collection. But there is only so long I can keep them employed doing that and still support the rest of the data collection. If I lay them off, and I’m not able to start in-person research until January, I’m at serious risk of losing that investment and would have to recruit and train again — and the training process is six to eight months.”

She’s hopeful support may come soon to help retain the research staff on research projects like hers. “Really, not a lot of money could be the tide-over that researchers need to keep these staff working. I can’t keep them in a holding pattern for another four months.”

Chivers knows she’s not alone. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with colleagues about creative thinking on what we can have these staff do in the interim for the project. It’s not the kind of problem we’re used to. We’re usually looking for more staff.”

Field studies postponed

For Bruce Ford at the University of Manitoba, the pandemic caused the last-minute cancellation of a long-planned research trip to Vietnam. Ford studies the systematics of sedges, one of the most widespread and ecologically important groups of flowering plants, and research has shown Vietnam to be a hotspot in terms of scientists’ ability to study them. That’s why Ford has been there twice before and planned a follow-up research trip for this spring, in collaboration with colleagues in Canada and Vietnam, to visit unexplored areas and collect specimens during his sabbatical.

As the virus spread and border controls tightened, Ford and his colleagues realized in March they would have to shut down their plans.

“It was so demoralizing,” he says. The group hopes to be able to remount their efforts for a study trip next spring.

Funding flexibility needed

“It’s significantly impacting research and research teams,” says Lisa Votta-Bleeker, chair of the Canadian Consortium for Research (CCR).

With 21 member organizations representing more than 50,000 researchers and 650,000 students across disciplines, the CCR is an advocacy coalition with a focus on research and support for post-secondary education. Their reach gives a broad view of the impact of COVID-19 on research in Canada.

While more needs to be done to protect and support research during and following the pandemic, Votta-Bleeker acknowledges the positive efforts to date, including those of the Government of Canada and the Tri-Councils. “Wage subsidies, support for students, funding extensions from the research councils — all of those are vastly appreciated,” she says.

But Votta-Bleeker, who is also deputy CEO and director of the Canadian Psychological Association’s Science Directorate, is concerned about the danger of research talent leaving Canada as a result of research postponements. If that happens in significant numbers, “you will see delays in Canada’s research productivity, and it will impact us globally.”

In the weeks, months and years ahead, it’s important that funding agencies “continue being as flexible as possible,” she says. “It’s also important that universities, researchers, students and faculties maintain open lines of communications.

“For students, what does it mean for their graduate requirements? Maybe their research will have to be adjusted,” she says.

“We need some kind of global thinking on what research is going to look like over the next year or two.”

Continued support for non-pandemic research

While new and enhanced funding is being made available for COVID-19 research, she says it’s important to also maintain support for other research endeavours.

“COVID-19 will be a big focus of research for a long time but there is still other research that needs to happen that won’t be COVID-19 related. We need funding to also be available for this.”

That’s a point NSERC President Alejandro Adem addressed in an April 30 email message to the council’s research community: “Indeed, I want to take this opportunity to strongly emphasize that all NSERC research projects are important to our agency,” he wrote. “Most of us work on research topics that have no direct bearing on medical countermeasures, yet they are of fundamental value to our society, country and planet and we will continue to work with the natural sciences and engineering community to provide the support all of you expect from us.”

In terms of funding targeting COVID-19 research, Votta-Bleeker says it’s important to take a broad approach. Everyone needs to “be mindful that we are knee deep in this pandemic and we are all feeling it,” she says. “We will be feeling the bio-psychosocial impacts for a long time and research will be needed around these implications as well.”

“This is going to be a far-reaching pandemic that will need far-reaching research that brings different lenses to it beyond the vaccine and treatments focus.”