Horizons Magazine: No slowing down in the lab

The virologist Volker Thiel can understand why research funding is in part being temporarily focused on the pandemic. But calls for proposals could also lead to one-sided research. | Image: SNF; DFG, AER

More papers than before, barely time for peer-reviewing, and too many researchers jumping on the Covid-19 bandwagon. Three researchers tell us how the novel coronavirus has accelerated the tempo of their everyday lives.

Since the novel coronavirus began its march across the Earth, there has been a flood of research published in specialist journals and on preprint servers. The danger here is that the quality of research is suffering, despite the sudden increase in funding. The drive to research into SARS-CoV-2 has intensified the demand for experts – both to peer-review papers planned for publication, and to vet grant applications. “I have received an extremely high number of requests” says Isabella Eckerle, a virologist at the University of Geneva. She has to turn most of them down, however, because she just doesn’t have the time. Many editors find it difficult to get peer reviews of papers submitted to them right now. This often prolongs the reviewing process. It is in any case impossible to review everything as precisely as would have been the case before the pandemic, says Eckerle. The extreme pressure everyone is under means the journals are also publishing articles of lesser quality.

“I know people who’ve been working for a long time with coronaviruses, so I can judge whether or not their studies are sound”. - Isabella Eckerle

Everything on preprint!

And indeed, masses of studies are getting published right now. Because everything has to proceed quickly, many researchers are using the preprint servers BioRxiv and MedRxiv, both of which are publishing huge collections of Covid-19 papers. By late June, these two servers together had a total of over 5,700 papers on the topic. And there are many more out there. This raises the question as to how experts are currently separating the wheat from the chaff. “I know the people who’ve been working for a long time with coronaviruses, so I can judge whether or not their studies are sound”, says Eckerle. If she has to assess studies outside her own narrow research field, however, she sometimes asks colleagues for advice on how reliable they are.

Volker Thiel is a virologist at the University of Bern. He believes that Twitter is very important for disseminating results that have not yet been peer-reviewed. A lot of researchers link up on it. “If something is exciting, news about it spreads quickly”, he says. But there’s a problem: social distancing means that it has become more difficult to engage in a direct exchange of views about new studies. Many conferences have been cancelled or have moved online. Roland Regös is a mathematical immunologist at ETH Zurich, and he misses meeting colleagues in person. There are important aspects of conferences that can’t be replaced online. Meeting fellow scientists during coffee breaks, for example, can provide impetus to one’s work. Eckerle also misses networking with others in the scientific community, and Thiel points out that there is now less opportunity to ask detailed questions at conference poster sessions.

Conferences will return again at some point – all three researchers are sure of that. But some official trips might fall away altogether in future. “People will ask themselves whether it’s necessary to go somewhere just for one or two days”, says Thiel. If you want to discuss a project with others, for example, you can organise it by video conference, just as was often done in recent months.

Not just following the trends

All the same, a lot of money is now flowing into research into the pandemic. But this focus on the coronavirus has a negative side to it. Thiel and Eckerle both regret that longer-term studies are not being taken into consideration by the funding bodies. “If projects stipulate a duration of two years, for example, I can’t appoint any doctoral students to work on it”, says Thiel.

Eckerle is also insistent that people shouldn’t just be researching into topics that are trending. We are still waiting for answers to very basic questions. “For example, we don’t understand why viruses jump from animals to people”. This is why it’s important to monitor the spread of viruses, among both people and animals. And that requires long-term funding.

The large amounts of research money up for grabs are all tied to specific research questions. But this is in contradiction to the bottom-up principle that is normally applied when a body like the Swiss National Science Foundation funds projects. It’s generally the researchers themselves who propose their research topics. Thiel would like to see a return to this procedure in future. He understands that some of the research funding available is for the moment being focussed on the pandemic. But tenders for projects can attract too many people, with the result that there are sometimes masses of similar proposals – such as for developing tests. This means that resources are being wasted in writing and evaluating applications.

The new virus is changing our scientific priorities. The epidemiology of infectious diseases will remain an important topic in Switzerland – of this, Regös is convinced. “A pandemic like this has a broader impact on the life sciences”. The HIV pandemic, for example, did not just leave its mark on the study of infectious diseases, but also on mathematical biology and evolutionary biology. It brought forth new research questions in quantitative biology and evolutionary biology that were highly relevant to public health.

Author: Sven Titz

Link to article in Horizons in English.

Link to article in Horizons in German.

Link to debate article in Horizons in French.

Images and text published in Horizons - The Swiss Research Magazine under the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.