Webinar on restarting research during the pandemic: summary of insights from across five continents

Every university in the Network has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and has had to adapt at pace. However, these common challenges have taken diverse forms and prompted distinctive solutions, with each university responding to a specific and locally grounded set of dynamics. WUN’s series of webinars to help members reflect on their experiences and learn from each other has continued with insights from universities across the membership and in different roles. In July, we explored how to maintain student engagement during remote learning. In our latest webinar, summarised below, we examined how universities have approached research during the pandemic and conditions for restarting work that had to pause. The first webinar, held in June, was on student mental health.   

SUMMARY OF THE WEBINAR

Establishing a number of issues that would recur throughout the webinar, Walter Dixon outlined the University of Alberta’s measures for supporting research during COVID-19. As Interim Vice-President Research and Innovation, Dixon chaired the university’s Research Impact Team, which monitored the continuation of essential research activity on campus during the high-risk period and set requirements for the gradual return of other researchers. The team’s diverse composition—including representation from facilities and operations, libraries, funding offices, faculties, and student support—allowed it to identify areas with particular challenges, such as community-engaged research and graduate study. Amongst the lessons Dixon highlighted was the need to be empathetic, to ‘recognise that individuals are affected differentially,’ and ultimately to err on the side of safety.

Sarah Thompson, Associate Dean of Research in the University of York’s Faculty of Science, focused on the management of scientific research. Thompson articulated York’s principle of localised decision-making: the faculty can lead overall decisions about what spaces are open, while departments have the best knowledge to assess the needs of particular projects and whose activities most require access. Thompson emphasised the important role of technicians, whose expertise and practical contributions were vital to managing the shut-down and making a larger return to work possible. Having established COVID-19 risk assessments and procedures, she indicated, York anticipate future waves will be handled through a strategy of ‘hibernation rather than closing our buildings, so that we can keep things ticking over so that it is very easy to restart again.’

How to balance competing research needs was a key theme of Felix Ankomah Asante’s comments. The University of Ghana, where Asante is Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Development, has shifted research management online, including ethics and awards panels, and has developed COVID-19 protocols for research requiring face-to-face interactions. Having thrown its weight behind Ghana’s COVID-19 response—the university conducted some 80% of COVID-19 testing in the country—it has expanded its existing research focus on malaria to include other infectious diseases. However, Asante highlighted that ‘universities and governments must make funds available for their nationally mandated priority areas.’ He gave the example of medical research, where the concentration on COVID-19 creates the risk that urgent work on other diseases will be neglected.

Arturo Molina, Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer at Tecnológico de Monterrey, shared their experience of managing a complex infrastructure. University leadership made the decision to close Tecnológico de Monterrey’s 29 campus sites ahead of government-declared lockdown. This allowed ongoing access to facilities for priority groups such as students nearing graduation, projects approaching deadline, and research in response to COVID-19. Tecnológico de Monterrey has adopted a series of public health measures to enable a staged and potentially site-specific reopening, including temperature checks, monitoring water waste and air, and sanitising public spaces, supported by an app and dashboard. Molina reiterated the importance of ‘clear and frequent communication with the research community, with the students and the families so they know what they should do and what is going to happen.’

Reflecting on her own experiences, Sylvia Ying He, Associate Professor at The Chinese University of Hong (CUHK) and lead of a WUN-funded research group, proposed five strategies for researchers. First she noted that, with outbreaks coming in waves, researchers should be mindful that ‘our research time window is actually quite unpredictable, especially if you need to go out to do fieldwork and collect first-hand data.’ Second, the pandemic has created new questions and policy implications that researchers can incorporate into their work. In He’s research area of transport and mobility, for example, many people have responded to the pandemic by adopting more self-service modes of transport. Third, exploring alternative ways of collecting data, such as online surveys or focus groups via videoconferencing. Fourth, join networking groups in your field that will enable mutual support. Finally, He recommended embracing new opportunities like virtual seminars and workshops.

In the Q&A, speakers explored further how universities and staff members have incorporated different tools and techniques into their practices, and ethical implications arising from research with human participants following the pandemic. They considered the likelihood of the pandemic reinforcing inequities in the global research landscape and noted opportunities to gather data and respond proactively to emerging trends. The panel observed that, just as researchers have had to adapt to changing situations, many funders have been flexible in acknowledging the transformed environment and finding ways forward.