. Let’s emerge from the pandemic lockdown into a fairer academic world. Current Biol. 2020 Jun 12.

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  1. It is an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to basic research at U.K. universities. Most laboratories remain unable to conduct experimental work or are running severely reduced essential operations only, although there have been recent positive signs of a staggered physical reopening of labs over the coming weeks. Nevertheless, it is clear that the subsequent ramping up of operations will be a prolonged and arduous process. It may be quite some time before labs are able to reach the operational levels seen before the outbreak, given the changes in working patterns and conditions which will be implemented and which may remain in place to mitigate against possible future pandemics.

    In the interim, resources, such as cell lines and animal colonies, have been constrained to those deemed strictly essential, and are being maintained by key staff who, at least in London, often have to use busy public transportation to arrive on-site. Digital platforms have enabled lab members to remain in virtual contact with each other, and many researchers have remained productive where possible by analyzing existing data and preparing manuscripts for publication, as well as attending talks, seminars, and conferences that have become, thankfully, widely available online. Others, however, particularly students and junior staff, have been less fortunate, and found their research prematurely and permanently curtailed, thus harming their future career prospects. We are also saddened by the news of university staff being furloughed and wish them a swift return to their posts. 

    The outlook for basic research following the COVID-19 pandemic remains uncertain. As with so many tragedies, it has rightly stimulated a widespread re-evaluation of a number of economic, social, and environmental issues, and much will depend on the recovery measures introduced by governments and institutions. It seems likely that funding dedicated to pandemic and infectious disease research will increase, and only time will tell whether this will be in addition to, or at the expense of, funding into other disciplines. We feel confident that current levels of research support for dementia, itself a growing pandemic, will continue, given its enduring impact on wider society as well as the increased COVID-related risk in older individuals and those with dementia.

    Amongst the adversity, we have also witnessed touching acts of compassion and solidarity here in the U.K., including the outpouring of public support for the National Health Service, the massive mobilization of volunteers to deliver food and medical prescriptions to vulnerable groups, and the secondment of university staff and facilities to undertake COVID related research. Our hope is that recent events will have emphasized the crucial role of science and open collaboration in improving public welfare, notions sadly eroded of late, and that the hiatus we have experienced as a research community will have broadened our horizons and taught us valuable lessons for the future.  

    View all comments by Marc Aurel Busche
  2. My months in furlough: A scientist without a lab

    As an early career researcher, I am interested in the early molecular changes in cellular pathways that lead to the manifestation of neurodegenerative diseases, and study these changes using iPSC-derived cortical neurons. I have a yearlong contract for my first postdoc, while I think about a future in academia.

    At the beginning of the lockdown nearly three months ago, I was placed on furlough, six months into my postdoc. This was the right decision for me as I am unable to produce new data while our lab remains shut. I also don’t have large amounts of data to analyse, students to supervise, or collaborators to interact with. While on furlough I cannot contribute to work being done in my group, so I have been focusing on completing a paper from my Ph.D., keeping up to date with the literature and listening to virtual seminars. However, as someone used to spending my days actively working with my hands, discussing experiments and scientific questions with colleagues, this lockdown has been frustrating.

    While we expect labs to begin opening in the next month, the momentum I gained on the cusp of the lockdown has largely faded, and I imagine it will take time to build again. I will gain back the months lost during lockdown because of the furlough scheme, but I have lost the months from the beginning of 2020 spent differentiating the cultures, which were discarded when my university announced an overnight closure of labs. This was several experiments worth of work, which could have provided vital data for my project. It is not clear whether I will be able to complete my goals for this project or if an extension will be possible.

    I am painfully aware of the numerous ECRs in the same boat, so the future looks a little uncertain. I am also waiting for the decision of a grant proposal submitted in March. Whether further submissions in the immediate future will be possible is unclear due to a high demand for funding that will emerge as we all surface from the lockdown.

    View all comments by Chaitra Sathyaprakash

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