Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how many of us engage with other people in both social and professional settings. While some of us have embraced the shift to completely virtual and remote lives, for others, this is not a sustainable change.
Biomedical researchers are among those who often need to work in person, as the resources they need to perform their work are housed in a shared laboratory space. Closures in March 2020 led to major setbacks for many labs, and the costs necessary to keep the labs prepared for reopening have been steep. There were major losses to worktime and time-sensitive studies had to be abandoned, all of which came with a price. In April 2020, Francis Collins, the then-director National Institutes of Health projected that these setbacks would amount to nearly $10 billion in losses.
However, the pandemic affected some researchers more harshly than others. Early-career, and women researchers with children suddenly found themselves with increased daily childcare responsibilities. The Washington Post reported that this caused increased work disruptions and a decrease in the ability to focus on work. In 2020, Nature Magazine reported a decrease in publications from women and less participation in COVID-19-related article submission compared to men.
Early-career investigators faced and continue to face setbacks in establishing their labs and their careers. Graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, and assistant professors who had plans to transition to the next phase of their career suddenly found themselves stuck in their current position for indeterminate amounts of time. Lab leaders became unable to financially support the next generation during such a financially tumultuous time, and new professors found it difficult to acquire institutional funds to set up a new lab. While scientists struggled to keep up with their existing time demands, the administrative departments also found themselves overburdened and understaffed. Essential processes for grant submission, like clinical study review and staff hiring became sluggish or even ground to a halt at times.
Scientific research funders are in a unique position to help the research fields they are interested in. In September 2020, The Center for Strategic Philanthropy published a Giving Smarter Guide addressing the problems in biomedical science that the COVID-19 pandemic caused, and presented potential ways for biomedical research funders to help mitigate the damage that has been done. While it has been some time since our initial reporting on this topic, the strategies presented in it are still relevant and powerful. They include:
1. Increasing budgets to make up for lost resources
Nonprofit funders can work with researchers to help modify budgets to account for increased personnel time, additional materials, and rebuilding of critical resources. It will be important to take the time to determine which ongoing experiments should be prioritized, lest the potential impact be delayed or never attained.
2. Developing new funding opportunities focused on good staffing
Allowing promising young, underrepresented, and transitioning scientists the flexibility to work despite the ongoing career delays can be a way to ensure a generation of scientists is not lost. Overall, the pandemic has changed what productivity looks like in many cases, and granting terms should be updated reflect our collective new reality.
3. Strengthening the nonprofit sector
Philanthropists can partner with the nonprofit community to ensure that their funding remains focused on disease-specific projects, and that unrestricted funding is available for critical resources for the researchers and organizational overhead. The additional support will help retain and encourage groups that are experiencing more stress now, namely women, young investigators, and underrepresented minorities.
This is a crucial moment for biomedical research. Supporting the next generation of scientific leaders at this point in their careers is essential for the field to continue the vital work of improving human health.