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Conducting research on what has been a stop-start basis

Socially distanced situation challenges the reality of how research progresses

It has been a year like no other for those engaged in research and development.

Academic researchers faced particular challenges, according to Catherine Godson, a professor in UCD’s school of medicine and a member of the board of the Irish Research Council.

She and her team at UCD’s Conway Institute carry out research on the factors that control inflammation in the body, focusing on finding better ways to treat the inflammation seen in chronic disease.

On the positive side, “Covid has taught us the benefits of basic research, of international collaborations and the benefits of partnerships between academics, business and industry. We’ve been able to supply a trained workforce for testing too,” she points out.

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On the other hand, particularly in relation to biomedical research and her own team’s experience, “it has been really difficult to conduct research on a stop-start basis.”

Very many academic labs closed down for up to 12 weeks in the early lockdown and when they reopened, research teams were reconfigured into smaller pods, which has proven tricky, because “research is very much a team effort,” she says.

On top of that, came time pressures. Research is often funded by grants that run for five years. PhD students typically get four years to come up with work that adds to the body of scientific knowledge. Post-doctoral researchers also tend to work on projects with limited timeframes.

In all those situations, “losing access to the technologies you need to carry out your research is really difficult”, she says.

Even the socially distanced current situation challenges the reality of how research progresses, whether by the glorious accident or the chance encounter. “It’s about knocking out ideas in the coffee queue too,” she points out. “All those kinds of interventions are still not possible to a large degree.”

By and large, research funders have responded sympathetically, in some cases bodies such as the Higher Education Authority have triaged those who were affected most greatly by the lockdowns.

“Remote working is not sustainable when you need access to technologies or where you need, as a team leader, to encourage a team dynamic, where you want team members to engage in certain behaviours. Research is a very creative process, you’re constantly challenging one another’s ideas, building up ideas or knocking them down.”

As a sector, the research community was already well used to communications tools such as video calls, while sharing lab data on Google Drives was par for the course. “We are very good on data sharing and partnering with international institutions, so we do that anyway,” he points out.

“But the problem is that more junior people aren’t learning by example what a good team leader is, they can’t see my behaviour, how I respond to good news, to bad news, how to support each other. It’s very difficult to convey that over Zoom. Remote working is not a sustainable model at all in research.”

Commercial research has been impacted too, according to a paper from KPMG, The Impact of Covid-19 on R&D in Ireland, published last August.

It found that, as a result of the crisis, in some sectors, R&D teams have been on reduced hours or furloughed for a period since March, as a result of projects being placed on hold or resources re-focused elsewhere, such as manufacturing activity related to Covid response initiatives.

“In the short to medium term, Covid-19 ‘return to work’ restrictions mean that a portion of R&D personnel time is spent working from home, thereby reducing the allowable numbers on-site in line with social distancing. While many companies, particularly in the tech sector, can continue R&D remotely, in others there may be a contraction in R&D activity during 2020, and beyond,” say its authors, KPMG partners Ken Hardy and Damien Flanagan.

To remain competitive, cost control and cost reduction projects are likely to be in focus for the next while. “We will likely see companies undertake R&D projects in these areas to seek productivity improvements, waste minimisation, automation,” they add.

On the other hand, in the software sector, they have seen the acceleration of digitisation projects. “Covid-19 may be the catalyst to drive companies towards a digital platform that can enable more R&D activity to be performed on a remote basis,” they say.

For companies that were directly affected by the shutdown some R&D work pivoted towards new projects that could deliver alternate revenue streams online.

New ways running a business

Covid also meant many companies moved “their R&D teams away from new product development and into new ways of trying to run a business through automation”, says Mark Jordan, chief technologist at Skillnet Ireland, the national agency for workforce learning.

Others charged their R&D teams with finding solutions to measuring productivity or output in a remote or blended workforce.

“All of a sudden, businesses, whose R&D was previously outwardly and commercially focused, began to look inward, to focus on how to improve the ways in which the business was operated or managed,” says Jordan.

What Covid did was bring the outward and the inward together, by presenting employers with “a new challenge that they hadn’t anticipated”.

Whether in industry or academia, growing Ireland’s overall research skills is important.

“R&D is a determining factor in how we retain foreign direct investment in Ireland, the skills that help develop new ideas,” says Jordan, who notes the Government is keen to promote Ireland as a centre of excellence for R&D, and backs this up with “massive funding” through universities and research centres.

Skillnet Ireland is working to bring businesses into that ecosystem, he says, “ensuring they can see the value of investing in themselves to grow and compete, and to ensure Ireland’s economy is strong and vibrant”.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times