Rebuilding science in a global pandemic

The peak body for heart health research in the US has made an impassioned plea for increased investment in science, after two years of laboratory resources and operations being pummelled by pandemic restrictions.

In a paper published today in the American Heart Association’s own journal Circulation, the authors warn that scientific research was massively impeded globally by stay-at-home restrictions and reduced personnel capacity in major facilities. Alarmingly, they also warn that early-career scientists, especially women and minorities, will face barriers to career advancement as a result.

“Over the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen remarkable scientific successes in the face of tremendous challenges,” says Elizabeth McNally, chair of the association’s Basic Cardiovascular Sciences Council and director of the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “However, research laboratories everywhere have faced daily impediments that began with laboratory shutdowns, followed by the need to social distance, illness, supply chain limitations, and many other obstacles that have hit every phase and every type of research.

“The pandemic has illustrated why science matters, and we must re-invest in the scientific infrastructure to rebuild so we are ready for the next challenges that come our way.”

The paper calls for:

  • Increased investment in research funding
  • Support for at-risk scientists, including caregivers and minorities
  • Grant and publication processes should have the “impact of COVID-19” in their reports
  • Increasing flexibility and resources in professional and institutional settings
  • Reimagining scientific meetings to include virtual and online options, as well as networking opportunities, and
  • A long-term commitment to increase funding for education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to improve scientific and statistical literacy, and thus help to make our society more resilient to future health care crises and challenges

The pandemic had a range of stunting effects on the progress of scientific research, beginning with laboratory shutdowns, followed by a staged return to work at reduced capacity, and clinical trials were halted for several months. These issues are compounded by major supply chain shortages, as well as the general toll pandemic life has on workers, including the cost or demands of childcare and the challenges of working from home.

“Scientists who are parents of young children have especially struggled because, for most researchers, it is simply not possible to do research from home since the home is not a laboratory,” says McNally.

“The impact has been greatest on trainees and early career scientists, and on any researcher who is less well-resourced or from an under-resourced racial or ethnic group, or a member of communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 infection and serious illness.

“It takes years of training to be a scientist and clinician, so losing these individuals from the workforce is costly and potentially unrecoverable.”

And McNally says that because so much research and energy was rightly diverted to tackling COVID-19, there will be knowledge shortfalls in other research areas – like cardiovascular health – that will ultimately need funding.

“We are at risk of losing a generation of scientists, which may potentially set back progress on discovering treatments for diseases,” says Mitchell Elkind, member of the association and a professor of neurology and epidemiology at Columbia University, New York. “We have to act quickly to direct resources to this problem before these consequences become irreversible. And we must ensure these resources and efforts are spread equitably throughout society to ensure that all segments of society may benefit.”

The authors say there are silver linings to these overwhelmingly dark clouds, however, with public trust in science at an all-time high (despite misinformation circulating widely) as epidemiologists and health experts have become a trusted and very visible source of information. And the successful, rapid transitions to telehealth and other flexible arrangements suggest science and health can adapt to new contexts. But the scientific community’s continued resilience needs heightened, targeted investment, the authors say.

“Investments in science and scientists and clinicians are investments that will pay off many times over in the future – and ensure we are ready for the next pandemic or scientific challenges,” says Elkind.

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