CAREER FEATURE

The trials of global research under the coronavirus

Researchers share how they have adapted fieldwork and collaborations in the face of travel bans and closed borders.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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International collaborations account for almost one-quarter of all publications and produce notable citations and influence. But the coronavirus pandemic is likely to choke off much of this momentum: researchers can’t meet face-to-face when would-be travellers are cautioned against flying or are banned from certain destinations. The impact of COVID-19 threatens to derail decades of shared scientific progress across many parts of the world, particularly in the United States and western Europe, where international partnerships had been growing swiftly.

Since 1991, science has benefited from increased funding and ease of communications, along with dismantled geopolitical barriers. Wealthier nations such as the United Kingdom, United States, France and Germany have seen a 10-fold increase in internationally co-authored papers, and Brazil, Russia, India and China have had a 20-fold increase. The United States and China are the leading research collaborators globally, and partner more with each other than with any other country.

Researchers are trying to find ways to maintain that productivity in the current crisis, by continuing scientific partnerships and projects. But many — especially those in developing nations — are experiencing major setbacks. Nature spoke to five scientists about the reality of collective research ventures in the face of a pandemic.

KATY SOAPI: Don’t forget developing nations

Katy Soapi, manager (currently furloughed), Pacific Natural Products Research Centre, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji.

People from other nations ask about collaborating with scientists at my university — but they often simply want us to provide samples, whereas we want to do research and collaborate on papers. We want to work and we want our contributions to be valued. It’s important to include the voices of scientists from small island states.

Since 2005, my centre has been funded by a US National Institutes of Health grant to collaborate with two US institutions (the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California) to look for potential antibiotics and other drugs in South Pacific marine organisms. This experience has helped us to provide scientific background information to support the Fiji government in developing key legislation for international treaties that oversee the use and conservation of biodiversity. Forming policies that will guide bioprospecting and biodiscovery is a sensitive, controversial area of research, but we now have that capacity.

The collaboration was set to end in August, but we’ve been able to get a no-cost extension owing to COVID-19. Still, we don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I’m not sure how we will build new collaborations, and it will probably be more difficult.

To be more attractive to potential collaborators, we have been expanding and diversifying our research skill sets to include monitoring ocean acidification and stocks of ‘blue carbon’ captured in our oceans. In addition, we have assembled several thousand samples from marine organisms — including extracts from sponges, seaweeds, soft corals and sediment bacteria — that haven’t been fully analysed. We have the skills to continue analysing these and local medicinal plants for antimicrobial or health-enhancing properties. But we can’t, even though Fiji has been declared COVID-free and the labs are back open, because we need funding and partnerships to do so.

CAROLINE WAGNER: The importance of visibility

Caroline Wagner, science public-policy researcher, Ohio State University, Columbus.

In my own research, upwards of 90% of international collaborations begin face to face. But it makes sense now to be more deliberate about outreach. Although social media won’t replace human connections, they will probably play a larger part during the pandemic. On the professional network LinkedIn, for example, connections with your contacts’ contacts become much more important (an icon indicating second- or third-degree-connection appears next to these people’s names).

Data are also important resources that can attract a collaborator. Visibility is super important, so make sure that others can find your work by using social-media tools such as Twitter and data repositories including figshare. (Figshare is owned by Digital Science, a firm operated by the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which has a share in Nature’s publisher, Springer Nature.)

As COVID-19 took over the world, my colleagues and I looked at international collaborations on coronavirus-related research in the 24 months before the outbreak took hold, and the few months afterwards. We found that COVID research teams are smaller than those that worked on coronaviruses in the preceding period, and represent fewer nations1. People who already knew each other were more likely to work together again in a crisis. To collaborate at a distance, you have to be able to communicate with enough depth to create something new.

In unpublished research, we also saw these groups consolidate teams. Researchers in developing countries, who don’t have as many resources or as much access to data, have lost out and are much less likely to be participating. Scientists in countries that have not only funding but a deep field of people to call on for input, equipment and data from previous experiences — such as the United States, the United Kingdom and China — are working together more intensively. But contributions from people in countries without those resources, including Saudi Arabia and Thailand, dropped off. Within six months of COVID’s emergence, these teams almost disappeared from the field. And it will be more difficult for developing countries to come back in — when ongoing connections get reinforced, it becomes harder for someone else to rejoin.

There’s also been a huge rush to study public health and infectious diseases. The numbers of papers in those areas have risen steeply. In that sense, the pandemic is affecting what people are working on — a consequence that will last for a long time.

SAM DUPONT: Diving into the literature

Sam Dupont, marine biologist, University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Five or six years ago, I was on the road half the time. Because I work on climate, I realized that wasn’t good, so I cut my travel time to 20–25% of what it had been. I opted out of conferences unless they were really important.

In April, after the coronavirus hit, I closed my lab — during the exact period that I conduct my ocean-acidification experiments. Everything will be delayed now. Instead of collecting new data or using existing data to create new ideas, I’ve been spending more time thinking of future experiments and diving into the literature to re-analyse the data that already exist.

I have a long-standing collaboration with Chilean colleagues. This year, we had planned a joint experiment to test a theoretical idea we had published in 2017 in Nature Ecology and Evolution2. But without being able to travel, we had no way to conduct those experiments, so we decided to expand the literature review in our paper to include more existing data. The original conceptual paper was based on five or so studies. Now, we are expanding that to at least 100. This approach — re-evaluating data in the literature — is underused in science.

Having a limited ability to generate new science, particularly in the field, puts me in a situation similar to those of many colleagues in developing countries. Normally, I spend one-quarter of my time training scientists in developing nations. In the future, I plan to teach them how to analyse existing literature, for example by conducting meta-analyses, so that they are better positioned to produce insights when resources are limited.

My advice to early-career researchers is to be bold. Recently, someone I didn’t know sent me a message and his CV, asking if I would like to work with him. We set up a virtual meeting, talked for an hour or so, and now have regular contact and are writing a project proposal to get him here when it’s safe to do. He was bold enough to reach out to me. Sometimes you have to be pushy. Self-isolation doesn’t mean you can’t reach out to have online meetings.

ALEX MOORE: Flexible fieldwork and remote connection

Alex Moore, coastal wetland ecologist, American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

Late last year, I travelled to American Samoa twice to meet collaborators, and to determine where to conduct field research on how the nation’s mangrove systems function and benefit local communities.

I was supposed to return in May this year to evaluate specific species’ importance to ecosystem function. I had also planned to go in August to measure the outcomes of various experiments. I expected to learn how local residents value and use their landscapes, document the changes they’ve seen over time and incorporate that Indigenous knowledge into management recommendations.

Now, instead of meeting in person, I’ve been looking for remote ways to engage with people to ask the same questions. It’s difficult to secure a meaningful connection and conversation on platforms such as Zoom.

For the fieldwork, I’m exploring two options. If COVID numbers flatten in the next six to eight months, I might go to American Samoa for a truncated month-long field season next May or June. I’ll have less time for data collection, but it’s better than nothing. The alternative is shipping all the gear to my collaborators on the island, who would work with students there to collect samples that they can ship to me for processing. It would be slower and less efficient. But I try to be really flexible around fieldwork — nothing has ever gone to plan. If you start recognizing that things are out of your control, it’s easier to come up with a plan B, C or D.

My main goal is making sure that whatever I do is still meaningful to the local communities. I realized that to make the project a success, I needed to stay in contact with people to determine how best to make the research relevant to new circumstances. I get in touch about once a month with my ten collaborators on the ground.

HASNAWATI SALEH: Adapt for every eventuality

Hasnawati Saleh, research coordinator for the Partnership for Australia–Indonesia Research, Australia–Indonesia Centre, Makassar, Indonesia.

I coordinate a consortium of 51 researchers at 11 universities in Australia and Indonesia that launched in 2019. We aim to study how the first railway in South Sulawesi, Indonesia — a massive infrastructure — will connect the whole island, and will affect everything from the economy to public health. We are particularly interested in the impact on young people, especially in light of the high unemployment rate among those who are between the ages of 18 and 24 in South Sulawesi.

The first meeting with almost all of our researchers present was held in Makassar in February this year; Indonesia’s first COVID-19 case was announced on 2 March. Now, our researchers cannot travel. Australia has closed its borders, so researchers from there can’t come here, either.

South Sulawesi is among the worst hit of Indonesia’s provinces. But we quickly adapted the project to include COVID-19. We are looking at how the virus affects health, connectivity and economic recovery.

Still, construction on the railway continues. We’re now working on a number of scenarios in case COVID-19 is prolonged. We decided that there will be no researcher travel for the rest of 2020. And, instead of meeting people in person, we are communicating by phone, WhatsApp, Zoom and e-mail.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02326-0

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

References

  1. 1.

    Fry, C. V., Cai, X., Zhang, Y. & Wagner, C. Preprint at SSRN https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3595455 (2020).

  2. 2.

    Vargas, C. et al. Nature Ecol. Evol. 1, 0084 (2017).

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