How (if at all) will the coronavirus pandemic permanently change science and academia?

I’m sure that you, like me, have seen some many infinity articles on how the coronavirus outbreak will forever change, well, everything (example).

I’ve linked to a couple of these in recent linkfests (for instance), noting a couple of problems that many of these articles share (and I’m not the only one to notice). One is recency bias: assuming that whatever changes have happened recently are going to be permanent. As Kieran Healy pointed out on Twitter, that’s like somebody in WW II London predicting that everyone will keep living in Underground tunnels after the Blitz ends. The other is wishful thinking: many “predictions” about how the coronavirus will change the world just so happen to line up precisely with how the author has long been predicting, or hoping, that the world will change. “Now more than ever…”, etc.

But it would surely be incorrect to assume that everything will go back to being exactly how it would have been in the absence of the pandemic.* And it can be fun, interesting, and sometimes even useful to speculate about the future. Hence my question for you: how, if at all, do you think the coronavirus pandemic will permanently change science and academia?

To kick things off, here are a few of my own tentative thoughts:

  • I think it’ll be appreciably more common post-pandemic to invite visiting speakers to give remote seminars. Not just for departmental seminar series; individual lab groups will invite more remote visitors than they used to pre-pandemic. Now, I don’t think everyone’s going to stop flying in visiting speakers post-pandemic. Heck, I’m not even sure that flying in visiting speakers will be appreciably rarer than it was pre-pandemic. But I think remote visiting speakers will become appreciably more common.
  • I do not think online-only courses are going to be much more prevalent post-pandemic than they were pre-pandemic
  • I do not think that in-person scientific conferences are a thing of the past, or even that attendance at them is going to change all that much post-pandemic
  • I do not think that, post-pandemic (and post-pandemic-generated-recession), people hired into tenure-track faculty positions are going to have much stronger on-paper qualifications (years of post-Ph.D. experience, # of publications, # of courses taught, etc.). See here if you want to know why I say that.

The common thread among the first three predictions is that I think things that people have been nudged/forced to do because of the pandemic, that they’ve discovered that they like for pandemic-independent reasons, are likely to persist in the long term after the pandemic. Other things that people have been nudged/forced to do because of the pandemic seem much less likely to be permanent.

But what do I know? I don’t have a crystal ball! Looking forward to reading your thoughts in the comments.

*Though if forced to choose between “the pandemic will change nothing” and “the pandemic will change everything”, I’d pick the former as much closer to the truth.

23 thoughts on “How (if at all) will the coronavirus pandemic permanently change science and academia?

  1. I largely agree with your assessments. Here are a few more predictions:
    – Hybrid classes (most in room, a few online) will become more common
    – More people will be willing to hire postdocs who are working remotely (e.g. from another state or country).

    These both involve transitioning from thinking “in person” is qualitatively different and irreplaceable to thinking of “in person” as desirable but on a continuum of issues that can be outweighed by other benefits. And that I think is a good thing as I think about graduate students who have kids and live two hours away but want to attend classes, postdocs with a spouse with a job who don’t want to move for two years, and undergraduates who don’t have the resources to live on campus and intermittently have challenges getting to campus (snow, car repairs).

  2. I agree with you that the qualifications to get hired will not fundamentally change, but I do think it is only fair to recognize there will be a 2-3 year bubble of low hiring hopefully followed by pent up demand. The cohort effect for people in prime readiness for a job right now is real even though not insurmountable or permanent.

    • Yeah, I’m feeling it at the moment. I really like almost everything about academic jobs – teaching, research, and service. But I hate how competitive jobs are.

      At the moment I’ve seen a 100% decrease for the last two months in positions I could apply for compared to last year, though this is quite a biased sample of course. I think what’s most nerve wracking here is the uncertainty in how long this will last, and how long it will affect the ability of institutions to take on new permanent people over the next few years.

      • Right there with you. 🙂
        Dunno if you have such flexibility, but I sorta accepted I’ll be doing 2-3 postdocs. Hoping hiring committees will understand that, and with some luck should get to do several fun things with little responsibility.

  3. Two shortish term responses, that will leave a distinct signature in the literature:
    1) The COVID19 paragraph in Methods, detailing why the experimental design is unbalanced, why the time series has a hitch in it…etc.
    2) A slew of meta-analysis papers hitting the journals starting this Fall.

    • Somewhat related – at GEB we are actually seeing a noticeable increase in number of submissions but it is primarily driven by more submissions from China. Not sure if that is a short term blip because China came out of COVID lockdown earlier or if that is a lasting change.

    • Very closely related – I bet we see a lot of PhDs taking an extra year. I hope committees remember why 3 or 4 years down the road.

      • I’m actually pretty optimistic that almost everybody is going to remember all this in a few years, and that hiring committees, tenure committees, and granting agencies will be very understanding about gaps in people’s cv’s. Do you think I’m being overoptimistic, or overgeneralizing from my own attitudes about this?

      • Yes, in PhDs w a field component particularly. One hopes that the near-universal effects of COVID19 will also increase the empathy for “lost field seasons, lost semesters” in general, as it’s hard to life a life without a major disruption (or two).

        I’m a little more sanguine about the outcome of the meta-analysis prediction, as you can imagine 1) lotsa overlap in topics (not something you see in Ecology much) and 2) lotsa spurious results from the selection of search terms. I worry that folks using this as a substitute for what they *really* wanted to do will won’t have their heart in it.

      • “I worry that folks using this as a substitute for what they *really* wanted to do will won’t have their heart in it.”

        That’s a very interesting sociology-of-science point. I’d be curious to know if there are any subtle yet systematic differences between “meta-analyses people set out to do from the get-go” and “meta-analyses people fell back on doing because they couldn’t do what they’d originally planned”.

        Fortunately, my own ongoing meta-analysis was a side project from the get-go, that I started working on pre-COVID. So the only effect of the pandemic on that project was to accelerate it. I know have a full time person I can throw at that project. It’s not just me doing it on my own whenever I can snatch a bit of time.

    • “2) A slew of meta-analysis papers hitting the journals starting this Fall.”

      Heh. I’m hoping to help make that prediction come true. The pandemic prevented my summer undergrad from assisting on the lab-based project we had planned for her to work on. So I switched her onto a side project that involves compiling data from the literature. I bet a lot of people are doing those sorts of side projects right now.

  4. Another prediction – the budget crises will accelerate change in academic publishing to a new model (not fully get us there but accelerate it). My research on the economics of academic publishing (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2013/follow-the-money-what-really-matters-when-choosing-a-journal) really highlighted for me how library budgets are one of the first places to take a drastic hit when budgets are squeezed (unfortunately) and how that creates change. What that model will be is anybody’s guess. But if I had to put money down I would bet on the US following Europe on the “pay to read and publish” train (https://info.reprintsdesk.com/about/blog/2019/the-lowdown-on-read-publish). Not entirely convinced that’s the best direction (I agree with much of https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2018/09/04/read-publish-good-academy/) but it allows everybody to proceed incrementally and avoid a lot of disruption and pain (https://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2018/12/19/open-access-and-the-pain-of-switching-adaptive-peaks/) which is appealing

  5. A handful of my predictions:
    Short-term (effect lasts 6-12 months):
    1. Increase in the number of meta-analyses and systematic reviews published, of highly variable quality.
    2. Lots of presumed “boring and uninteresting” data published. The stuff that has been in a drawer or excel file for 10+ years, and thought to be nothing special by the PI, but is actually something really useful. (I think there should be a prize for the most ground-breaking “boring result”).

    Medium term (effect lasts 2-3 years):
    1. Improvements in experimental design, as there has been a pause in doing lab and field work, so researchers have a time to really think how to do their experiments. Rather than being time pressured to just do the experiments.
    2. Everyone linking their research to Coronavirus in some way. Similarly in the same way that happened with Zika.

    Long term (effect lasts 5-10 years):
    1. Increase in people applying to study infectious diseases, epidemiology (eg. The Jurassic Park Effect).

    • Agree with your short-term predictions. Disagree with medium term prediction #1; I think most everyone already thinks a lot about how to do their experiments. Doesn’t mean their experiments are always flawless (they aren’t), just that the flaws mostly aren’t because people rushed into the experiment without thinking about it. Not sure about your #2–who is “everyone”? In my own subfield, I don’t remember anyone linking their work to Zika. Agree with your long term #1, that’s a really interesting prediction I hadn’t thought of. I’ve heard anecdotally that the same thing happened with Jaws and marine biology in the 1970s.

      • Ah yes, I should explain I’m in the malaria/mosquito field, so I perhaps had a within bubble impression that everyone was shoehorning Zika in!

  6. Princeton University Press, OUP, and CUP all installing extra security because of the hordes of rioting academics looting their warehouses.
    🙂

  7. Not a prediction but a benefit of the current zoom world – a lot more family members are able to attend thesis defenses.

    • I like this one. I think a lot more folks, even when they’re able to do them in person again, will emphasize the virtual attendance option more and the “infrastructure” (people with knowledge of video conference software, recorder, etc) will be there for them to do it.

      I was actually talking about this with my parents (who never attended college, but happened to be able to attend my PhD exit seminar, and thought it was the most amazing thing ever). They kept asking if my partner, in her final year of PhD, would be able to do an exit seminar and that they were sad they wouldn’t be able to attend it. We told them it’s likely *everyone* will be attending remotely right now. This pleased them.

  8. The smaller universities that are potentially at risk of closing due to COVID are going to develop new strategies to help with student recruitment and enrollment growth. The university I’m at currently is making a big push to convert the 16 week classes to 8 week classes to “increase flexibility” for our students starting this fall. I think it’s going to be challenging for a lot of faculty in the sciences to convert courses to 8 weeks, especially when the faculty are teaching multiple labs.

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