The Silver Lining of Pandemic in Biomedical Research

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Covid-19 changes the world, and the global human societies suffer the loss of lives and economy. The disruption in academic research is dramatically terrible: the laboratories are closed, the funding is endangered, and the recruitment and training of new staffs are stopped. Many researchers are running Zoom meetings with lab members in great anxiety: how long would the lockdown last? When we go back to lab, how much can we resume the research works? Will the delay in publication affect the future funding? No one knows the answer exactly. Even worse, addressing these concerns won’t be the top priority for any government at this moment.

Under these cloudy situations, there is a silver lining: the pandemic may bring a new era of the Great Global Collaboration of research communities.

In the pre-Covid world, "scaling up" the research in situ is the most common strategy. Principle investigators (PIs) try to run research in a “vertical integration” manner, getting together everything: postdocs, technicians, animal experiments, pathological analysis, FACS analysis, sequencing facility, and bioinformatic analysis, etc. All these services are controlled by one PI, who runs massive-scale studies to generate “big papers”- we all can see the studies reported in top-tier journals become more and more complicated in recent years. You can hardly find a simple, elegant, conceptually clear paper in those journals nowadays (such as this one The good track of publication will secure funding, which in turn attract talented, ambitious postdoc, experienced technicians, and skillful bioinformatician. This is a positive cycle for building scientific enterprise. However, small laboratories will be squeeze out of the research. Such “Matthew principle” of accumulated advantage, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", is a well-known but unspoken effect in academic field.        

The pandemic, as disrupting as it is, may be a game changer for small biomedical research groups. There are two factors here. First, the lockdown cut back research activities of every laboratory, forcing every researcher to focus on very specific study. As the reopen in most of places and countries are gradual and might be reversed anytime, the laboratory works will be assumed in only small scale and intermittently. The power of “vertical integration” in a resourceful laboratory is significantly weakened, for the limited personnel allowed to return to work and the difficulty in coordination. Even after the finishing of pandemic, basic measures to control infection- avoiding space crowding, restricting in traveling and immigration, limiting work hours, will greatly increase the cost of vertical integration in situ. In the long term, it will be more and more difficult to maintain.        

Second, the massive scale, nearly universal lockdown has trained researchers to adapt to remote working mode. PIs need to coordinate research activities all through virtual meeting and online scheduling. This is especially true in the early phase of reopen, since each time only lower percentage of personnel is allowed, and staggered scheduled is used. Importantly, EVERYONE gets training in meeting and discussing with people without limitations from geological distance or institutions. More researchers have communicated with new collaborators during the lockdown.

This trend, which will remain even after the pandemic finished, creates new opportunities for small-scale research groups to form “horizontal alliance”. Each laboratory focuses on its own expertise while collaborate though exchange of data and reagents. The collaborative project needs to be designed based on this principle. This is not a new idea. However, the expanding use of online communication and the changing nature of study data make it more feasible than anytime in the history of academic research. Moreover, by doing so, small research groups can form multiple collaborations at the same time, giving them more flexibility to respond to the changes in research demand and environment.    

I expect more inter-institutional or even international collaborations among small groups are coming in the near future. Meanwhile, funding agency and research institutes should encourage or even promote such trend; for example, allowing PIs to apply for a grant or publish a paper as a Team to share funding and credit, not to over-emphasize the individual contribution. In the long term, this will be beneficial for society and research institutes: don’t put all eggs in one basket.

Go to the profile of Chi-Ping Day

Chi-Ping Day

Staff Scientist, National Cancer Institute, NIH

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