Years of my cancer research work came to a grinding halt on March 13. I certainly wasn’t alone. Researchers across the country had to shutter their labs when universities suspended research that was considered “non-essential” to follow social distancing and help slow the spread of Covid-19.
Part of “pausing” my research meant stopping all enrollment of human subjects in the research trials we were conducting. Much of my lab’s work is in uterine cervical cancer, which has been dropping in incidence in the U.S. due to appropriate screening and control. Globally, the picture is less bright. More than half a million women are diagnosed annually with cervical cancer and 55% of them die of the disease, mostly in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.
Cervical cancer trials in the United States can offer lessons for detecting and treating the disease here and around the world. So, every cervical cancer patient enrolled in a clinical trial in the U.S. is crucial and every follow-up assessment is critical to answering the questions we have about this devastating disease.
Yet my research group, like many others around the country, is facing the unthinkable and shutting down — or slowing to a crawl — patient enrollment, experiments, observational studies and clinical trials. Emory University, where I work, like most academic research universities, is now training a large portion of its research arsenal to Covid-19, which is the need of the hour.
Academic research has long been at the heart of discovery in America. The U.S. makes a tremendous investment in academic research every year, which has led to breakthroughs in energy, water, agriculture, education, medications, and more. The National Institutes of Health received almost $42 billion in funding in fiscal year 2020.
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has thrown research into disarray, not knowing when this will end has further heightened anxieties. Yet as some wise leaders have said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
In that spirit, during this time of social distancing it’s helpful to focus on work that gives us meaning. Researchers can not only remain productive but have opportunities to gain new insights, bond more closely with their teams, make new collaborations, and have the one thing we never have time for at work: time to think.
While most researchers are skilled at thinking of novel ways to look at problems, the pandemic is challenging the ability of even the most cognitively capable to plan, focus, and stay productive. Here I offer a few tips for maintaining research productivity in these extraordinary times.
Set up a plan and a schedule times to communicate with your team. This may be unusual for a team that has usually just had a weekly team or lab meeting and, apart from that, works flex time or in the field. But after a few weeks and some failed starts, most teams adapt to using platforms that organize communications and allow sharing documents and “to do” lists, like Zoom, Slack, LaTeX, and more. Most universities have licenses for many of these, so they are freely available to faculty members. Keep in mind that for research involving human subjects, additional securities must be in place.
During this unusual time, start meetings with a mental health check-in. Your research teams are anxious, frightened, grieving, trying not to kill their kids or partners, and grateful to have a job and meaningful work to focus on. Recognize this and start with “around the room” check-ins before you get right to it.
Move to virtual research, data collection where possible
Many federal agencies have provided emergency interim measures so clinical trial monitoring can be maintained. In general, most agencies agree on several critical points that can guide not only randomized clinical trials but other human subjects and population studies. These include rapidly deploying virtual enrollment platforms; using telemedicine and remote visits where possible; changing from in-person to online or phone-based assessments; and providing tools to patients for self-monitoring and reporting. Decisions and study amendments must be based on a risk assessment of subjects. Many human subjects’ review panels and institutional review boards have also set up mechanisms to facilitate quick turnaround.
Pivoting without pilot data
Researchers carefully collect pilot data for publications and for their next grant proposals. With experiments or human subject studies halted or slowed, how do scientists keep the momentum?
Most researchers already have reams of data and often discuss how they may ask new questions using that data; in fact, we often give these data to students for just such purposes. Now is the time to think of using it for pilot data. If your own data does not have what you need to progress to the next grant or manuscript, explore the wealth of available international, national, state, and local data sets.
For example, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) has been collecting data since the 1960s on the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the U.S. NHANES collects data on 5,000 subjects a year and most of the data is available online and free. You can search by population or disease type and dataset, or solicit help from your local library. Although databases like NHANES never have exactly what you would be collecting in your own research, with a little creativity in data — your own or someone else’s — new pilot data can open up.
Getting to the ‘someday’ list
There are a million things every scientist and research team wants to get to someday but rarely has time for. This unique period can give teams the opportunity to focus on that lengthy “someday” list.
Most scientists I know have a long list of manuscripts they have been trying to get to for months, or even years. Setting up writing groups is an excellent use of this time. A recent Google search for “online academic community writing” yielded millions of hits. Every university has a library and/or center for faculty development or digital scholarship for those not already immersed in online teaching. There are easy and free instructions on how to start, and many of the communication tools mentioned above can provide platforms for working on shared documents.
Laboratories, as well as animal and human subject protocols, require standard operating procedures to ensure consistency, safety, and reproducibility of experiment set up, data collection and analysis. Documentation for these procedures must be revised when protocols and procedures are amended. They must also be monitored and discussed with research teams to ensure against procedural drift. These administrative details often sit on future to-do lists. Face it: That future is now. In the same vein, now is also a good time to catch up with data quality assurance checks and training and credentialing.
Research ‘time well spent’
Most scientists have read the work of other scientists they have wanted to reach out to for a conversation or collaboration. They may meet at conferences, or even in the hallways of their own institutions and say, “We should set up a meeting, our work really dovetails!” then nod and go about their busy lives. Now is the time to make those connections. Reach out. In this time of isolation, human connections are valued more than ever and the opportunity to focus and be energized by new ideas and opportunities is a gift.
Finally, now is a good time to acknowledge the research on the benefits of downtime (time between meetings and teaching and research and writing and service and clinical care), think time (quiet time that allows one to process, ask new questions, consider new hypotheses, and create new solutions), and me time (personal time to rest and rejuvenate). Yet few find the time to maximize any of them. Exploring these time well spent options will not only maintain your research productivity but will likely increase it.
The continued productivity of academic research is essential to winning the war against Covid-19 and restarting the economy. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics estimated that the United States spent $476.5 billion on research and development in 2018, accounting for 27% of the entire world’s expenditure. Any decline in productivity will stall the evidence needed to improve or save lives.
We must collectively focus on time well spent and continue the vital work that research requires — even during this time of isolation — to provide the knowledge and innovations that we so desperately need.
Deborah Watkins Bruner is senior vice president for research at Emory University, chair and professor of nursing at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, professor of radiation oncology at Emory University School of Medicine, and a member of the Winship Cancer Institute.