The COVID brain drain

Which research fields are losing out?

  • Daniel Hook and Simon Porter

Researchers from the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Center, pictured on 11 December 2020, are collecting blood, tissue, saliva, and fecal samples from bats in an effort to understand the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
Credit: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The COVID brain drain

Which research fields are losing out?

22 December 2020

Daniel Hook and Simon Porter

Andre Malerba/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Researchers from the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Diseases Health Science Center, pictured on 11 December 2020, are collecting blood, tissue, saliva, and fecal samples from bats in an effort to understand the origins of the Covid-19 virus.

In an amazing testament to the ability of the research community to shift focus to solving a time-critical problem, one in every 25 academic publications that have appeared so far in 2020 on the Dimensions platform from Digital Science* refer to COVID-19.


Daniel Hook

This intense effort has led to the development of several vaccines that have gone from concept to approval in record-time. But, given that the global baseline for research output has continued in line with established trends, we ask: which research fields have lost out to COVID in the shift?

As we near the end of the year, 210,000, or almost 3.9% of the 5.4 million scholarly articles published to the end of November in 2020, have referred to COVID-19 in some way. This is the result of tens of thousands of researchers from around the world focusing for the last 11 months on the critical issue of our day.

Simon Porter

Simon Porter

While it is the obvious research fields such as virology and immunology that have become most focused on COVID-19, a spectrum from other fields including, for example, mental health researchers and economists, have become involved in studying COVID-related effects such as the personal, societal and financial impacts of lockdown.

Where have the resources come from to suddenly support all this focused research activity? Looking at research inputs, several months passed after the rise of the pandemic in February before all but the nimblest funders were able to post calls and award grants (see Figure 1 below).

This clearly indicates that the early research carried out into COVID was supported from existing grants and resources meant for other projects and investigations.


Most-affected areas of research

A similar picture emerges for research outputs. In recent years the trend has been that the number of publications increases by around 7.5% per year. The paper-production rate in 2020 appears currently to be broadly in line with that trend.

As vaccines are approved for use, publication around COVID-19 is slowing, yet by the end of the year almost 240,000 scholarly articles will have appeared that refer to COVID-19, the majority of them in medicine-related areas of research.

While we saw increased levels of publishing when lockdowns began as academics switched to tasks that could be completed from home, the articles published on COVID-19 this year, broadly speaking, are not additional but rather, in place of other work that would have been produced.

So which fields of medicine have arguably been set back by the global pandemic because the resources that would otherwise have been devoted to them have been switched to COVID? To address this question, we performed an analysis of 2020 publication outputs.

First, we took researchers who had authored or co-authored at least one article on COVID-19 this year.

We then filtered these results to include only “active researchers” (those who had published at least five papers per year in 2018 and 2019). Using the Research, Condition and Disease Categorization (RCDC) code for each paper in their total output in the last two years (2018 and 2019), we then assigned each researcher to at least one RCDC-defined field. This gives a number of academics involved in COVID research affiliated with each RCDC area.

Second, we repeated this analysis, but on all active researchers over the last two years (2018 to 2019). This gives a baseline of the number of academics involved in each RCDC area around the world.

Finally, we required that researchers in the analysis must have published at least four papers so far this year and grouped researchers by their level of focus on COVID research in 2020.

The results are shown in Figure 2 below for the 12 most affected RCDC areas.


From Figure 2 we see that for 4.23% of active researchers who have previously published in the RCDC area of Pneumonia & Influenza, more than 90% of their output this year related to COVID-19. For a further 8.98% of active researchers in this field, between 50% to 90% of this year’s output related to COVID-19, and another 11.42% published between 25% to 50% of their work this year on COVID-19-related topics.

This means that, in total, almost 25% of active researchers who usually work in pneumonia & influenza, as defined by RCDC, switched at least 25% of their 2020 output to COVID-19. This was also true for almost one in five biodefense researchers, 15% of researchers in the separate fields of immunization and emerging infectious diseases, and 14% of HIV/AIDS researchers.

Is there an upside?

Should we be worried about the so-called covidisation of research? After all, “covidisation” is really just a brain drain by another name. It is natural that when a crisis arises, attention turns to addressing the problem, drawing on existing established networks and knowledge.

But as with other brain drains, we can hope for positive repercussions that extend beyond, in this case, the production of a vaccine. For example when, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was an international brain drain from the old world to the new, it was estimated that the UK lost around 10% of its newly qualified PhD students and 1% of its established academics to the US and Canada.

The upside was an opening for the UK to create links and build collaborations with those countries.

Additionally, the opportunities created by this new inter-subject brain drain are much more multifaceted. Not only is it a chance to invest in an area of research (coronavirus) that has been dangerously neglected, it is a time to establish new relationships and to transfer knowledge and techniques across fields.

In the early stages, COVID research was notable for its insularity and for being confined to existing networks, yet whole networks do not appear to have been completely co-opted to COVID research. This suggests ample scope for the spread of ideas and approaches learned from COVID within well-established research networks.

Just as the brain drain from the old world to the new saw a flow of researchers in the other direction too, it is likely that researchers who have enhanced their toolkits from learnings about COVID will move on to find other areas where these tools can be used.

The future of COVID research

We don’t yet know whether COVID-19 will emerge as a research field in its own right or even whether, as we learn more about the disease, it may give rise to further new fields.

The proximate and personal impact of the COVID problem has fueled a research phenomenon this year with 4% of global output focused on the disease. In light of this response, it is appropriate to ask whether we treat all threats with the same seriousness.

The COVID crisis has a fatality rate of less than 1%. Global warming and climate change will affect 100% of the population with the likelihood of a far higher fatality rate over time. The problem is that it neither feels proximate nor personal, and there is little chance of a quick solution.

Examining a simple search model in Dimensions reveals that climate science, like COVID, is responsible for around 4% of the world’s research output. For COVID that level was reached in just a few months, but it has taken 20 years to develop for climate science.

While COVID and climate change have different timescales and different solutions, it should give us pause to consider whether we have the right research priorities for our future.

*Digital Science is a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which owns 53% of Springer Nature, publisher of the Nature Index.

Daniel Hook is chief executive, and Simon Porter is director of innovation, of Digital Science.

This article has been contributed by members of the Nature Index community. See our pitching guidelines here.