We will not know the long-term impact of the SARS-CoV-2 viral outbreak for some time
yet, but many of us have already begun to feel the effects—not only on our daily lives
but also on our work as life scientists. With partial or complete institutional shutdowns
in countries worldwide, the global COVID-19 health crisis has rapidly impacted the
life science landscape, including our patterns of work. Some life scientists may today
feel essentially “stuck,” unable to carry out experiments because of COVID-19-related
working restrictions or because they need to look after children in connection with
the closure of schools and kindergartens. This can be a frightening feeling, especially
for young life scientists, who usually have short-term contracts and may worry about
their future careers.
Other scientists may have begun using the times of shutdowns and curfews to develop
scientific projects further while working from home. In fact, Isaac Newton developed
the essence of his groundbreaking scientific work during a pandemic when he was forced
to work from home due to a plague outbreak in 1665, when the University of Cambridge
sent its students home to continue their studies. For Newton, this meant Woolsthorpe
Manor, the family estate about 60 miles northwest of Cambridge, where he was isolated
for over a year. On his return to Cambridge in 1667, he had developed his seminal
theories on classical mechanics as a student working from home . Only 2 years later,
he became a professor at the University of Cambridge.
Of course, a lot has changed since the seventeenth century. Science today is international,
globally connected, and increasingly collaborative. There are means to work from home
on the computer while connecting with colleagues locally and globally using a wide
range of video conferencing (VC) systems, teleconferencing platforms, or collaboration
tools such as Slack . For computational biologists and data scientists, collaborations
can be facilitated through electronic means of communicating analysis results or co-development
of computational code. The fact that nearly all communication these days is electronic
also spurs new collaborations and online activities, such as virtual journal clubs
held internationally, virtual scientific seminars, and ad hoc workshops and training
activities on topics of common interest. Scientific conferences are increasingly held
as “virtual meetings,” such as the international EMBO | EMBL Symposium “The four dimensional
genome – Virtual” (normally taking place in Heidelberg, Germany) and the 2020 edition
of “The Biology of Genomes” (normally held at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, NY).
They were run online in March and May 2020, respectively, with real-time streaming
of talks and moderated live discussions.
The ability to rapidly connect with scientists in spite of institutional shutdowns
has, on top of this, facilitated the engagement of researchers in collaborative activities
targeted against COVID-19. This includes studies pertaining to the biology and evolution
of SARS-CoV-2, pathogenesis and epidemiology of the disease, host response and host
genetics, and potential therapies [3–5]. The European COVID-19 Data Portal , announced
by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on 20 April 2020, for example,
is setting out to help scientists coordinate the sharing of research data related
to the fight against COVID-19 using the European Open Science Cloud. Additional activities
include new global efforts that aim to sequence SARS-CoV-2 viral genomes along with
patient-matched host genomes or to utilize existing cohorts such as the UK Biobank
, in order to dissect the role of host genetics in the COVID-19 disease course.
On top of this, new international platforms such as Crowdfight COVID-19  or data
against COVID-19  aim to empower scientists to work together in fighting SARS-CoV-2,
by connecting expertise from different fields with data resources. Another example
is a regular workshop series hosted by the European Laboratory of Intelligent Systems
(ELLIS), which seeks to connect the expertise of leading researchers in machine learning
and artificial intelligence for the fight against COVID-19.
In this editorial, we report on the impact of COVID-19 on the daily lives of life
scientists, irrespective of whether they engage in COVID-19-related research activities
or not. We focus on how the current health crisis has affected patterns of work in
the life sciences and highlight who in the life science community may be particularly
vulnerable in the current situation. We based a large part of this editorial on a
survey that we circulated among colleagues in Germany, Spain, the UK, Italy, France,
Canada, Turkey, and the USA between 15 and 23 April 2020. In total, we received 881
responses, 72% of which were from trainees, 11% from support staff, and 17% from professors.
Sixty-two percent of the respondents characterized themselves as experimentalists,
34% as computational biologists, and 4% as administrative support personnel.
Impact on life scientists: research progress and working conditions
Seventy-seven percent of the respondents stated that their institute has been fully
shut down, with only essential services staff present on site. Nineteen percent reported
a partial shutdown (where the institute is < 50% operational), and the remaining reported
a basically “fully operational” institution.
Our survey confirmed that, overall, there has been a significant impact of institute
closures on life scientists: 57% of life scientists reported that they had lost some
of their work. This is likely to result in financial consequences, as repetition of
work will consume additional funding. Twenty-five percent of respondents reported
at least 1 month and up to 6 months of work had been lost due to laboratory shutdown—with
large differences seen between wet lab (73%) and dry lab (31%) researchers. At the
same time, levels of self-perceived productivity dropped, where dry lab scientists
were much more likely to continue carrying out their work from home as expected (29%
of dry lab scientists, but only 10% of wet lab scientists, reported “at least 80%
productivity”). There was also a more pronounced increase in self-perceived levels
of stress (during times of lockdown compared to before) among wet lab scientists,
with higher increases seen in trainees and non-tenured professors. On the other hand,
some respondents reported that their stress during the laboratory shutdown was lower
than during their normal work routine, which could be explained by less frequent interruptions
in their daily routine or perhaps reduced expectations from peers and lab heads to
The personal living conditions—for example, alone versus living with a spouse or family—and
whether scientists are based in an institution within their home country or whether
they are expatriates also seem to affect the level of personal impact the COVID-19
outbreak has caused. We observed some differences between male and female scientists,
with females reporting fewer productive hours. This is, in part, due to the higher
rate of females among wet lab scientists (70% of female versus 60% of male respondents
work primarily experimentally) and likely also reflects differences in childcare duties.
This suggests a particular vulnerability of female scientists during an institutional
shutdown. Another vulnerable group appears to be expatriates, especially trainees
working in a life sciences institute located on a continent other than the one where
their home country is. Thirty-four percent of these young scientists live alone, compared
with only 14% of respondents working in their home country. These expatriates might
feel more isolated and may also face potential problems with frequent updates to local
regulations due to language difficulties.
Educational opportunities and e-conferences
There has also been a varied impact of COVID-19 on the scientific system with respect
to patterns of scientific communication, collaboration, and training. At all career
stages, VC has gained importance in running group meetings or journal clubs and to
meet collaborators. More than 90% of life scientists at all career stages reported
in our survey that they were now more regularly making use of VC for these purposes.
Nearly half of the respondents stated that their level of communication with their
supervisor, mentor, or line manager had not changed (48%), whereas one fifth said
it even increased (22%), which suggests that VC is fortunately heavily used and appears
to be an effective means of communication and mentoring.
At the time of our survey, 30% of life scientists have attended virtual scientific
conferences since the COVID-19 pandemic started, suggesting that e-conferences are
becoming an important format for scientific meetings. Especially trainees reported
that they have been making great use of opportunities for e-learning, including VC-based
bioinformatics courses, with a higher rate of wet lab (72%) than dry lab (50%) trainees
benefiting from e-learning during an institutional shutdown. This indicates that especially
trainees normally based in the wet lab use the time of shutdown to expand their skillsets.
This includes many young scientists now learning programming languages. For them,
there is an opportunity to use the unintended break in their experimental work to
develop into more interdisciplinary hybrid (wet/dry) data scientists.
Patterns of collaboration during the COVID-19 outbreak
Although 49% of scientists reported that their research hours have been reduced during
the COVID-19 outbreak, many indicated that they are using the times of shutdown to
devote more time to data analysis (43%), manuscript or thesis writing (45%), or developing
grant applications (11%) (see Fig. 1). Indeed, there are early signs that manuscript
submissions to scientific journals have already been increasing since COVID-19-related
restrictions have emerged . And somewhat impressively, over a hundred respondents
(102, 18% of the total) indicated that they shifted the regular scientific activities
to be able to directly contribute to research with the aim to combat COVID-19. A recent
inquiry circulated among members of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)
provides an independent testament of the willingness of life scientists to contribute
to fighting COVID-19 (https://www.data-against-covid.org). This study also showed
that life scientists actively support virologists, epidemiologists, and health care
workers by contributing reagents, instruments, protective equipment, and IT infrastructure
(such as high-performance as well as cloud computing platforms) or by providing clinical
tasks and communicating with journalists and the public (https://www.embo.org/news/articles/2020/life-science-researchers-efforts-to-fight-covid-19).
How the COVID-19 pandemic affected patterns of work of life scientists. Shown are
summary statistics from self-reported data based on a survey with 881 individual responses
New means of collaboration appear to gain in importance for scientific research during
the period of COVID-19 lockdown. Not surprisingly, 94% of life scientists completing
our survey reported ample use of VC to collaborate, discuss, and develop science.
Eighteen percent of computational biologists indicated that collaborative work using
community software development platforms, such as provided by GitHub, gained relevance
for their daily work.
Finally, although we did not explicitly ask for this in our survey, it has become
clear from our own research groups and from talking to colleagues that scientists
are also actively using times of social distancing to “socialize from a distance,”
which includes cooking clubs, tea or coffee times, paper acceptance celebrations,
and even social beer hours run via VC.
In summary, COVID-19 had substantial effects on scientists, causing stress and work
interruptions, but we also see new patterns of local and international cooperation,
idea exchange, and electronic learning appearing. If there is a silver lining to the
current global health crisis, it would be desirable that some of these new practices
are maintained and further developed once we are able to return to “business as usual”
in the future. The ability to work efficiently from home, and to collaborate productively
with life scientists and clinicians nationally and internationally, without extensive
travel (and the associated carbon footprint) might, ultimately, even result in benefits
for scientific communities and society as a whole.