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One year on


What should the path from the pandemic look like for research?

A year ago this month, hundreds of universities across Europe shut their doors as Covid-19 swept through the continent. Strict national lockdowns—unimaginable just weeks earlier—were imposed as the World Health Organization declared that Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic.

Today, as EU leaders continue to grapple with the pace of vaccine rollouts, and the French government puts in place tighter restrictions yet again after a brief period of relaxation, the crisis feels far from over. But for researchers and their institutions, finding the best ways to continue their work effectively alongside the presence of the virus has become increasingly pressing. In France, the government has exempted universities from the latest shutdowns, while in Germany university leaders have called on politicians to better help higher education plan for life beyond lockdown, including by prioritising university staff for vaccination.

Universities and research institutes are still facing immense daily challenges in relation to the pandemic—from striking a safe balance between face-to-face and online contact for staff and students, to the mounting costs of doing so at a time when they are faced with huge financial uncertainties. Last year, the French Conference of University Presidents warned that health and safety measures alone would claim 2-3 per cent of university budgets.

While hits to income from international students have generally not been as bad as initially feared, the long-term picture is still not clear cut, especially given the pressure on public finances that support so much university research.

Amid these immediate pressures, however, many within research—like so many in society—are increasingly concerned about what things will look like as we emerge from the pandemic. As the vaccine rollout provides hope of a gradual return to a kind of normality, what that normality should be is slowly coming into focus—not least because of the uneven impact the pandemic has had on different areas of both society and the research community.

This week, Research Europe and its sister titles at Research Professional News are launching an editorial initiative aimed at promoting debate around how the sector can recover and rebuild in a way that is more sustainable and fairer to those who work in it. 

Our Path From The Pandemic initiative will focus on six themes where there is mounting pressure for changes of approach: financial sustainability, online opportunities, fairness, open research, international collaboration and trust in science. 

The themes will provide a backdrop for our coverage over the coming months. We encourage our readers to get in touch if there are ideas and initiatives you think we should be highlighting to others in the sector.

The last year has brought huge pain and unprecedented change for many. The world may not be out of the grip of Covid, but for research, if recovery is to mean something more than things going back to how they were, the time to pave the way for change is now.  

This article also appeared in Research Europe