'Covidisation' of academic research: opportunities and risks

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a flood of research activities, special funding opportunities, and potential career paths. But this 'Covidisation' can come at the risk of undermining other areas of research and scholarship.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly changed all aspects of life. Nothing is spared.

In a recent post at Forbes, I explored the likely impact of the pandemic on the entire field of global health. One big concern highlighted is the risk of extreme 'securitization' of global public health. That is, the pandemic will force countries, funders, health agencies, and researchers to focus too much on infectious threats of pandemic significance, and reframe global public health as a 'national security' issue. 

I am an infectious diseases epidemiologist and a public health physician. But I find this securitization problematic in many ways. Health is a fundamental human right, and deserves attention, with or without pandemics. Pandemic preparedness is a welcome by-product of universal health coverage (UHC), but cannot be the central justification for UHC. 

And good health is a function of a spectrum of issues, from addressing social determinants of ill-health (e.g. poverty), to tackling the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). In fact, NCDs are likely to dominate in the coming years, even in low-income countries. Climate change is another looming threat that deserves urgent attention and research.

A narrow framework focused on pandemic infections can be harmful to the broader agenda of health and healthcare. It forces everyone to be reactive and go from one epidemic or crisis to another. And we know crises demand urgent action that does not allow for careful, deliberate discourse or scholarship. Everything is rushed and potentially sloppy. We are already seeing a flood of pre-prints during this pandemic, making all sorts of claims, or being misinterpreted by the media (see my Skeptic's guide to ecologic studies). It is as if everyone is compelled to write about COVID-19, regardless of their prior work or expertise.

Viewing the response to international emergencies only through the limited prism of security would condemn global health to an infinite succession of periods of "war" interspersed with "truces" focused on surveillance systems, rather than confronting the causes of the epidemics, rooted in the social determinants of health. If the immediate responses are not accompanied by structural changes capable of promoting a radical reduction in inequalities, the question remains: who will truly be safe at the end of each "war"? - Professor Deisy Ventura

I now worry that the COVID-19 pandemic can lead to 'Covidisation' (for the want of a better term!) of academic research and scholarship. Within weeks, every major university has pushed out special calls for rapid grants on COVID. Every major funding agency has launched new funding opportunities on COVID, and all governments are racing to provide funding for R&D and research. Millions of dollars are being invested in COVID research. New philanthropic investments are pouring in. Some research funding agencies have cancelled their regular open project competition calls because of the pandemic, while opening new calls for COVID-19 research. Journals have put out calls for papers on COVID-19. A simple Google search on 'COVID-19 funding opportunities' is enough to show you how extensive this trend is.

While those working in infectious diseases, public health, global health, and modeling have welcomed this opportunity, the availability of new and large amounts of funding has suddenly attracted researchers who have never done any infectious diseases work in their entire careers. Everyone thinks they have something to offer, regardless of their primary discipline, expertise, or passion. In part, this make sense - they are trying to be helpful in a crisis. But the risk here is diversion of valuable expertise in other areas to a temporary pandemic crisis. The risk is the opportunity costs involved in pursuing research angles that might not go anywhere, or be redundant or wasteful because so many others are chasing the same angles. The risk is getting the research completely wrong, because of lack of training in that area. The risk is putting in a lot of effort, only to find the problem disappear next year.

I am sure there are students and academics working on non-infectious conditions or issues, and they are all wondering if their work has any relevance or value in this new world. I am sure they are wondering how their work will get funded or even read in this new world. Will they now need to make a case that their area of scholarship is as relevant as studying pandemic infections? Will they need to convince funders and universities that their research might have some relevance to fighting pandemics? Researchers should not be exposed to such insecurities.

I hope, as an academic community, we all recognize and acknowledge that:

1. Every area of research is valuable and necessary. Each academic should focus on what they do best and what they are best trained to study.

2. Diversity in research is critical for any society.

3. All areas of research deserve funding and support. Real passion for a specific topic should count for something!

4. A crisis cannot and should not decide what is valuable, relevant or worthy of support. 

5. Governments, funders and universities should be thoughtful about the risks of Covidisation and not ignore their broad base of researchers.

In conclusion, humanity has endured many crises over centuries. The COVID-19 crisis will also pass. Crises will come and go, but we need a long-term vision and strategy for research and scholarship.

So, if you love researching coelacanths, long-dead dinosaurs, exploding quasars, gun violence, global warming, dark matter, or whatever it is that gets you jumping out of your bed early morning, please continue to focus on it! We need it!





Madhukar Pai

Associate Director, McGill International TB Centre

I am a Professor and a Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University, Montreal. I serve as the Associate Director of the McGill International TB Centre. URL: http://www.paitbgroup.org/


Go to the profile of Ramona Khanum
over 1 year ago

Thanks for this well-needed read. I couldn't agree more, especially to your five concluding points. I think we all have experienced some form of 'biased funding' within the Health Science arena itself. It is rather difficult to defend and obtain grants for investigating microorganisms that do not create havoc in the hospitals, thus not making into the statistics but still causes many chronic infections and financial burden. What kind of chances do these kinds of studies have alongside studies on cancer, tuberculosis, vector-borne diseases and now, the flu?   

Go to the profile of Gregor Reid
over 1 year ago

Excellent points but will the gatekeepers listen? Do we truly have a strategy for research in Canada or elsewhere? Millions of dollars are now being spent on vaccines but realistically how many will actually be developed and be effective? It seems universities feel they are contributing just because they allocate funds for research on a vaccine or concepts that might lead to a vaccine in ten years, but it is unfortunate that there was not a collective discussion amongst the 50-100 institutions that may be doing this, to pull resources and invest in ten with the best chance of success. Of course such collective action is unprecedented as each institution wants to be famous for discovering a treatment, but aren't these unprecedented times? With at least two large pharmaceutical companies already going to vaccine trials, should the university researchers who just received funding to pursue their vaccine, not simply talk to one of the companies to see if their idea is better? At the end of the day, any vaccine needs a company with the resources to make, test and distribute a vaccine. How much money should be diverted at the expense of other research that in the meantime may reduce the incidence and severity of COVID-19, or contribute to the main killers of cardiovascular disease and cancer? Good luck in disseminating your message. I can imagine lots of debate on the issue.