How COVID-19 changed the research landscape

In a desperate attempt to find some positives in the COVID-19 situation I have reflected on how it has changed the way we work. This has been the case in many departments but here I reflect on the research revolution through my distorted memory of it (note my memory may not always be accurate)

Since March research has been getting the press it deserved. Initially this meant the pausing of non essential studies to work towards a shared goal in the battle against COVID. Research across disciplines, and clinical staff joined forces in the quest for treatments, vaccines and for better knowledge of the condition.

Team work makes the dream work

Each individuals specific skills were utilised in order to aid recruitment, data collection, study set up and delivery, intervention development etc etc. As with all teams during the pandemic, it was all hands on deck to get up to speed and on top of the generation of knowledge that can help fight this battle. It was acknowledged that some people might be redeployed so we all worked quick to ensure that we hit the ground running before staff changes left everyone short. No job was too small and everyone’s help was appreciated!

Fast pass

COVID related studies had prioritisation through ethical processes and the ethics team worked tirelessly to ensure that studies were set up and implemented with a matter of urgency. This was only possible through the pausing of non-COVID related activity, which has now resumed, and yet these teams are still able to turn around COVID studies quickly to prevent delay. I’m convinced they must have cloned themselves- there's no other explanation for how they are doing this so quickly.

Similarly publications that are COVID related are fast tracked and prioritised in order to share the information quickly. This isn’t without its challenges though, with staff redeployed and burnt out, there are a lot less people able to peer review work. Unless you want to publish in the daily mail, this is a crucial step in scientific publication. Similarly, a lot of editors are clinicians, so have a lot less time to offer the fast tracking of this process. This is somewhat helped by the availability of pre-prints and data sharing, but does mean the results should be interpreted with caution until peer reviewed.

No-one can do everything but everyone can do something

Patients and members of the public have been very willing to volunteer. I think there are a number of reasons why that might have been the case. Firstly- there is literally nothing else to do, except Netflix, so people had more time to offer. Secondly, research is in the media and it is clear to everyone that we need to know more about this condition. Therefore, when people are asked to volunteer they already understand its importance prior to being approached. It’s also nice to be a part of the solution and be recognised for that and I think all the volunteers know how grateful we all are of their support.

Whilst the efforts this year have been amazing, it is important to remember that this is not a sustainable way of working. It is not possible to maintain the efficiency of ethical applications or publication in a time where the demand on usual research activity has resumed. The efforts to ensure research capability and sharing of knowledge take a huge amount of work, and is certainly not a sustainable way to work. But for 2020 everyone made it happen and wasn’t it amazing!?

A moment of thanks for all the researchers, peer reviewers, editors, PIs, scientists, researchers, clinicians, ethical reviewers and everyone involved in saving the world.

Tips and tricks from a clinical academic on how to navigate the research landscape