COVID-19 Series: ISEH "Happy Hour" #2 Wrap-up

On May 8th, ISEH hosted our second installation of a ‘Happy Hour’ webinar to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on academic laboratories across the world. Our initial happy hour was focused on laboratories in the United States and Europe, where this installation provided insight from Japan, Australia and Europe. Led by an impromptu panel of investigators (Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu, Louise Purton, Carl Walkley, Atsushi Iwama, Mark Dawson, and Claudia Waskow), we discussed the impact the global pandemic on our laboratory operations and plans, our careers and those of trainees, and transitioning to work from home.  ISEH Headquarters staff answered questions on the side in the parallel chat conversation.

We are looking forward to holding another virtual meeting in the coming weeks to touch on these issues and new challenges faced by our trainee and junior PI faculty all over the world. Below are some highlight from the discussion:

Although most panelists faced a total shutdown of laboratory research different institutions even within similar areas different institutions have had varying responses from commuting and science being ongoing until recently to researched decreased to 10-30% and access to facilities limited to ‘essential personnel’ necessary to maintain equipment and check on animals. Most institutions are not allowing the initiation of any new experiments and only allowing the maintenance of long term already initiated experiments and knock out strains. Many institutions have implemented remote work, and lectures, and some are instituting or discussing paycuts and furloughs. Some institutions prohibit students and postdocs from being designated as ‘essential’, with considerable variation in staffing guidelines and what staff can be listed as “essential” and who may come in to do required tasks such as animal care. 

Similar to US laboratories, many Asian, Australian and European labs have not yet been given a specific time for reopening nor guidelines for what reopening may look like. It seems that what is consistent though, is the regulation of travel in order to mitigate the spread of COVID.  In Japan, they are hoping to be opening soon, after the current stay at home ends in 3 weeks (early June). In Germany, county by county opening is occurring and making individual regulations on when reinstatement will occur. Some institutions are allowing 2 people in 2 shifts from each lab with masks and distancing procedures in place, but this can be extremely difficult to implement and organize across and between multiple laboratories from a scheduling perspective, though is beneficial for contact tracing should someone become ill. No overtime is allowed and animal quarters at some institutions animal care facilities workers are on two week cycles are training additional lab personnel in animal husbandry in case they are needed to tap in for help. To this end, some staff have been redeployed to help with COVID testing and as some grants are not paying out or able to have buy backs for the blunting of productivity at this time. Some governments have set up COVID funds to help cover salaries of these redeployed staff. As in the US, clinical research that was not essential (i.e. not delivering an intervention on a trial) also has been blunted (~50%). As reopening occurs it will be important how to ensure the separation of research staff from patients, and vice versa, as well as finding mechanisms to ensure that that clinical research utilizing patient samples can continue to safely occur.

Funding is also a major concern as grant panels have become virtual or, in some cases, funding decisions have been postponed, potentially indefinitely. Inequities exist in those that have children that have needed to be home schooled, those that have been asked to serve in other capacities such as increasing clinical duties, performing COVID testing, or facilitating animal care. This has resulted in the inability to submit planned grants as well as a requirement to reorganize a strategy for timing of grant submission and coverage of funding periods. Further this has disrupted the ability to gain data required for grant submissions and the submission, and revision, of manuscripts especially in the cases where long term experiments need to be performed and may not be allowed to be initiated until the institutions have a better idea if they feel another shutdown is likely. Concerns expressed by many of our experts were for the early career researchers and those trainees in transitional phases whom may be most impacted by this hurdles in productivity and therefore may choose to take other positions that are not academia or science based.

What is clear from these discussions is that the COVID19 pandemic has the potential to have implications for and impact on productivity and funding years to come. How institutions, funding agencies, and scientific societies assist in the reinstatement of science as well as support of PI’s could set the stage for how quickly scientific discoveries can recover. The silver lining of this difficult situation may be found in the conversations and support of our colleagues, the acknowledgment of the current issues in the way the science is conducted and funded, and the ability to devise and integrate new platforms (such as virtual meetings, science happy hours and symposia) to disseminate science and collaborate with those around us to enhance scientific discovery. The retainment of these values and programs may not only allows for more diversity and collaboration in science but enhance the frequency and quality of our interactions.

Compiled and written by:  Heather O'Leary with support from Grant Challen and Patricia Ernst


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