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As COVID-19 research gets fast-tracked, other projects shut down

With many studies put on hold, professors worry for their research – and what this means for graduate students.

BY ALLISON DANIEL | APR 06 2020

The fast-spreading COVID-19 virus has sparked a burst of innovative research. But this comes at the expense of other crucial health research, as universities and research institutes instruct staff to direct their resources to COVID-19 whenever possible, and to put other work on hold.

While researchers across the country agree that this is the appropriate response, the pandemic is having a major impact on their work.

“Within a week, we essentially moved into a full shut-down of our research programs,” says Gianni Parise, associate dean of research in the science faculty at McMaster University. However, COVID-19-related projects are continuing, as are patient trials that require close monitoring.

“This has been without question the most challenging issue that I’ve had to deal with,” says Dr. Parise.

Similarly, Jess Haines, an associate professor in the department of family relations and applied nutrition at the University of Guelph, and co-director of the Guelph Family Health Study, says she has been told to halt multiple studies on family health behaviours, including one looking at stress in children which was about to begin before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“We were just about to start recruitment. The goal of the study was to understand how stress in early life of young children influences their health behaviours and health outcomes,” says Dr. Haines, noting that the findings of such a study would also be relevant to the consequences of COVID-19.

Disruptions to work and funding

Researchers at laboratories have had similar experiences, according to Meaghan Jones, assistant professor in biochemistry and medical genetics at the University of Manitoba. Dr. Jones had been conducting a long-term animal experiment, involving up to 300 person-hours of work, that was set to wrap up at the start of April. But she made the call to stop two weeks before the end of the project.

“It was a real blow to the lab in terms of the work involved,” says Dr. Jones. “It was a sad decision to make, but I think it was the right one.”

Andreas Laupacis, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, notes that many researchers are clinicians who are now being drafted into the fight against COVID-19. “If this plays out the way we think it might, people are going to be spending more time on the front lines and therefore less time writing,” Dr. Laupacis says.

To account for the disruptions, many Canadian research funders have approved extensions to funded projects that have a good chance of starting up again once the present crisis has subsided. This includes funding from the tri-council agencies (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council).

CIHR, for example, announced on April 2 that it has  cancelled its project grant competition entirely for spring 2020. As well, effective immediately, the funding agency has automatically applied a one-year extension to all active grants, and paused existing and new strategic funding initiatives for three months (with the exception of programs related to COVID-19).

Dr. Haines expects that researchers will need to re-evaluate the relevance and validity of studies that began before the shutdown. She notes that her work could evolve into an opportunity to understand the impact of COVID-19 on family behaviour.

Supporting graduate students

Aside from the blow to research, McMaster’s Dr. Parise says one of his biggest concerns is how to continue supporting graduate students. “We have students who, before all this happened, were on track to complete on time and within their own funding cycles. That looks likely to be in jeopardy for a number of students.”

In order to maintain some momentum, Dr. Parise is encouraging members of his kinesiology lab to work on different components of their projects, such as literature reviews.

Dr. Jones’s Winnipeg lab is now redirecting its energy towards planning for future research. “We were going to ramp up two new areas of research this summer, so we just pushed the start date back. When we get started, we will be really well prepared.”

Dr. Laupacis also sees the current crisis as an opportunity for researchers to push ahead with projects while working from home: “Some of us who don’t do lab-based research might be able to get some papers out that we’ve been wanting to look at for a long time.”

Whatever the silver linings, Dr. Haines has cautioned her team to avoid working 24/7 while in self-isolation at home. “I remember great advice from my [PhD] advisor who said, ‘don’t do that all the time.’ You’re going to need to connect with one another, and with others. We need to think about staying connected socially for joy and for stress relief.”

As both Dr. Jones and Dr. Haines see it, some things in life take precedence over research activities. Dr. Haines’ advice: “Do something frivolous that makes you laugh.”

Allison Daniel is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto and a journalist in the certificate in health impact program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Disclosure: Ms. Daniel receives funding from CIHR. 

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