The research community has experienced a sudden and deliberate shift away from research that is not directly focused on the fight against COVID-19 and toward research relevant to the pandemic. While this is no doubt necessary, it is worth considering the ramifications.
On March 17, the University of Toronto announced that in accordance with government guidance, all onsite, lab-based research would be limited to research related to COVID-19 and time-sensitive critical projects. Similar broad-based messaging was delivered to many Canadian universities.
By March 24, no less than five new funding opportunities had been announced in the broader research community, all geared toward stimulating research to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Many more have since been announced. Sponsoring organizations span university, provincial and federal levels and included both public and private sectors. Thousands of academic researchers across the country have a dizzying array of new research funding opportunities available to them providing they focused (or reframed) their work to COVID-19.
“Mission Pivot” has been used to describe the efforts at universities across Canada to design and manufacture medical supplies to meet the needs of the healthcare community. However, it appears this term applies more broadly as the pivot is taking place on a larger scale within the research community across the country.
We don’t have to look very far to see evidence of this research pivot:
- The Government of Canada announced a large and aggressive program, the Canadian 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Rapid Research Funding Opportunity. A total of $54.2 million has been reallocated from a number of federal and provincial funding agencies. Proposals have been submitted as either medical countermeasures (52 projects funded with an average grant size of $702,000) or social/policy countermeasures (47 projects with an average grant size of $378,000). Awarded over two phases of competition, this initiative changed the research landscape practically overnight.
- The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is launching an accelerated program to fund promising research into COVID-19 mitigation. Under an expedited version of its Alliance program, the NSERC will provide up to $50,000 for individual projects of up to one-year duration, for a total of $15 million.
- Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) President Michael Strong has announced that CIHR has cancelled its Spring 2020 Project Grant competition. The agency acknowledged this would have significant impacts on those who had applied by the March 4 deadline as well as on future competitions, but added that applicants could choose to have their submissions considered in the Fall 2020 competition. Even with mitigation strategies available, including financial bridging to support research continuity, many investigators were understandably dismayed by this decision. Early career researchers felt a particularly strong sting from this decision, left with no feedback on their proposals and no access to extension or bridge funding.
With COVID-19 bringing new cases and deaths every day and given the potential scale of the pandemic, the research community must act quickly in what truly amounts to a wartime effort. However, while critically important, this mandated pivot will have long-term consequences in other research areas. While many of the measures (e.g., staff layoffs and halted lab operations) are intended to be temporary, research institutions will face a harsh administrative burden as researchers who have been laid off are rehired or reallocated.
If the pandemic continues for several funding cycles, it stands to reshape the Canadian research agenda in a lasting way. The new funding is likely to set new investigators down a career path focused on the disease and refocus the work of early and mid-career researchers. In sum, COVID-19 and its effects are likely to occupy the attention of researchers for several years, if not longer. Not all of the changes will be easily reversed and we will no doubt miss out on opportunities.
Accounts of research during the Second World War describe pivots towards electronics, instrumentation, radar and rocketry. Countless inventions owe their existence to wartime research, including the nuclear reactor, high-speed digital computers, Dramamine and O-rings. Huge injections of money into research had lasting legacies, sparking a post-war golden age in research in which funding for projects and personnel increased dramatically for decades. Scientists themselves were transformed by their war-related research, describing it as an “exhilarating and maturing experience.” Science in general became more cooperative and earned a higher degree of respect from society.
One of the wild cards in the current environment is how long the war against COVID-19 will last. How effective will we be at flattening the epidemiologic curve and how long will we be “dancing” with the virus until it is brought under control? Whether months or years, the research landscape, among other aspects of our society, is bound to be very different when we emerge. What new discoveries will we have made? How will science be changed? How will society be advanced? What will the world look like? Come along for the ride, as bumpy as it may be.