How does coronavirus affect academic research? How should it?

 By Tuomas Forsberg

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally impacted societies as well as the lives and wellbeing of people throughout the world. How will – and particularly how should – the crisis affect scholarly research? Relatedly, what lessons can be drawn from the crisis when it comes to the organization and funding of research?

Blue glowing human figure and several green coronavirus visualizationson a dark background

Photo: 123rf

Although the academic world was not exactly caught unawares, it is clear that much more research than before is needed to tackle the pandemic head-on, to find out where the virus originated from, and how it behaves. The pandemic also necessitates increased scholarly efforts to develop a vaccination and medicine, facemasks and ventilators: these preventive, protective and curative innovations require substantial research from the most basic level to practical and applied dimensions, while in times of crisis the cycle from idea to product needs to be accelerated.

The coronavirus crisis has also underlined the vital need for the social sciences and humanities. We are ostensibly dealing with (almost) the same kind of virus, but the societies it is infecting are different. If we want to prevent the virus from spreading, we need to know how societies work. Social norms and practices as well as beliefs vary. Social structures and spaces are diverse. The crisis exposed an interesting gap between research outputs based on simulations and those based on the real world (even though the simulations assumed certain elements of the real world). Hence, we need research and researchers that are knowledgeable about the various societal and cultural conditions and international networks, and that take account of the differences between them.

In Finland, a key area of expertise that has been in demand during the crisis concerns the law and the restrictions of basic rights. But the debate quickly extended to issues concerning language and communication as well as moral philosophy. Due to the crisis, we are rethinking some very fundamental questions about ethics and politics.

The value of the social sciences and humanities in bridging the natural sciences and societies is not always understood. Just before the coronavirus crisis, the populist party newspaper in Finland ridiculed research that the Academy of Finland had funded in the social sciences and humanities, claiming for example that a particular study on the history of mobile healers in sub-Saharan Africa was not based on science. But the whole point was missed: in order to foster vaccinations in Africa, we need to know what people believe and why they might have more faith in magic than science, because that will affect their willingness to be  vaccinated.

The coronavirus pandemic has also raised questions concerning multidisciplinary research. It has become fashionable to gather multidisciplinary research groups around certain topical phenomena and even to build study programmes focusing on them. Yet since COVID-19 did not exist before, there was no research group in place that would have been designed just for this pandemic. Accordingly, many multidisciplinary research groups were quickly formed to study questions related to the crisis. These groups, however, were not typically based on an array of scholars practising multidisciplinary research, but on scholars with disciplinary expertise. That said, good disciplinary research often requires interdisciplinary knowledge and input from other disciplines. Moreover, organizing a multidisciplinary research group to deliver new expertise in times of crisis is undoubtedly facilitated by background knowledge and experience of other disciplines and the way in which multidisciplinary research groups work. Either way, COVID-19 clearly did not obviate disciplinary knowledge – quite the contrary – since what is relevant in encountering new unforeseen phenomena is abstract, theoretical knowledge as well as methodological skills, not empirical knowledge of a different phenomenon.

In this sense, the crisis has once again demonstrated the importance of basic research. This suggests that the funding model for science needs to be based on the belief that basic curiosity-driven research will yield the best results at the end of the day. No applied or policy-relevant research that aims to make a difference can serve societies well without robust basic research. The more research funding is tied to narrow thematic projects, the less flexible it is in dealing with new crises as they emerge. The more research is tied to topics that have been defined top-down, the likelier it is that nobody has conducted research that is directly relevant to a crisis that was unforeseen by the authorities or funding agencies. In this context, I have in mind two researchers: one who had completed his PhD on the Great Lakes in Africa just before the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and another who had worked on Afghan languages just before the terrorist attacks in 2001. Both of them had been perceived as working on esoteric and non-policy-relevant issues and yet their expertise turned out to be of critical importance. Such anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Of course, it does not follow that core issues should be discarded. Yet, the bottom line is that when a topic has become important enough for the authorities to regard it as worthy of research funding, the research that emerges is already a few steps behind in terms of novelty.

Why should we trust in the fact that basic curiosity-driven research can respond flexibly to new problems? In addition to the belief that various topics might already be covered by researchers driven by curiosity  before they become acute problems, I believe that the key reason is the ethos that researchers, even when focusing on basic research, want to contribute to resolving common problems. There are many signs that researchers, if they have time, will immediately focus on crises such as the coronavirus. This spring, a number of seminars have been held and special journal issues edited on COVID-19 quite spontaneously. The coronavirus crisis will inspire a great number of studies in the years to come since it has provided data and raised new questions in a multitude of research fields.

How will the coronavirus crisis affect future research? I do not know the answer to that question. But if asked how it should affect research, I would use it as an opportunity to organize and fund studies in the following way. Sufficient funding is needed for basic research that is not directly tied to narrow projects. International cooperation and the exchange of ideas are vital, not least in the social sciences and humanities, but we need to rethink the role of conferencing and strengthen mobility by other means. Disciplinary expertise coupled with interdisciplinary input, knowledge of other disciplines and experiences of multidisciplinary collaboration are valuable not insomuch as we would be able to organize research around certain wicked problems on a permanent basis, but rather because they pave the way for the flexible organization of multidisciplinary research groups in times of crisis.

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