Ignoring science? U.S. academic researchers feel left out

In a global report, many say policymakers are not heeding their guidance while also expressing concern over future pandemics and the funding needed for projects
By: | November 2, 2020
Braun S/Getty Images

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has not interfered much with their current work, scientific researchers in the United States overwhelmingly said the findings they  produce are being ignored by public policy makers, according to a report released by open academic access publisher Frontiers.

The global survey of more than 25,000 researchers from May and June of its academic members in 152 countries showed that two-thirds of those from the U.S. disagreed or strongly disagreed that their guidance was being heeded by politicians. Only 18% believed U.S. decision-makers were critically looking at that data. Many researchers who were polled in countries where coronavirus outbreaks were minimal topped the list, including New Zealand (77% favorability). Others in hard-hit countries such as the UK, Brazil and Chile were critical of their leaders’ responses.

“While we do not know what advice was given and if it was used, this data suggests more comfort in those countries that are coping well – those who took early lockdown decisions, have had similar previous experience, for example with SARS, and who recognized science as key to pandemic management decision making,” said Sir Peter Gluckman, chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice.

U.S. scientific research respondents numbered more than 3,300, the largest number of any contingent in The Academic Response to COVID-19 survey, which also looked at three critical areas: funding, mitigating future disasters and the future of research.

“Scientists are under extraordinary pressure to deliver answers and a lack of precedent and preparation, combined with severe political and social pressures, has made this an incredibly challenging time for them,” said Kamila Markram, Frontiers’ CEO and co-founder. “Along with the disruption faced by most of the world’s population – lockdown, remote working, isolation and anxiety – many researchers have felt an added pressure to understand, cure and mitigate the virus.”

The majority of researchers reported that their work and their roles have remained unchanged. Nearly 75% said they are working on academic papers, while 57% are doing ongoing research. Another 42% said they are teaching online, with 7% reporting they are key workers involved in COVID-19 research. Only 3% said they are not working.

Two-thirds of U.S. respondents reported “positive experiences with the allowance of remote work”, though the percentage was lower than other countries such as Sweden (74%) and China (71%). Many believe that work will return to normal within one month to four months once the pandemic is controlled, including those in the U.S. contingent.

“It is encouraging that despite the massive disruption the first wave of coronavirus caused that the vast majority of researchers said were able to continue to work,” Markram said. “It gives us hope that the academic community will remain resilient to new waves of COVID-19, like those currently sweeping through Europe, and come together to find the solutions we urgently need to live healthy lives on a healthy planet.”

Two of the deepest concerns from researchers are future responses to potential pandemics such as COVID-19 and the money to continue work on projects related to them.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said it is incumbent on academia – where 40% of respondents say they are involved in activities related to the pandemic – to create task forces to respond to crises and provide information via open access. Researchers say future pandemics and climate change are two threats that can be addressed early and effectively.

“Academic institutions must make a concerted effort to implement stringent response policies,” professor Xia Li of Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, China, said in the report. “Most importantly, the actions taken by institutions should be scientifically sound, whilst ensuring that researchers and students feel safe both psychologically and physically in their working environment.”

Another pressing area of concern is funding, and half of U.S. respondents said they believed research monies would be redirected in the future. Only 9% said funding would increase. Those in geology, environmental science, biology, materials science and psychology expressed the most concern. Computer science and mathematics appear to be far more insulated, according to the results.

The top takeaways from those surveyed: “there needs to be more investment in basic and applied research and better ways for science to advise policy making” … and that goes beyond COVID.

James Wilsdon professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield Director of the Research on Research Institute, noted in the report: “If this crisis teaches us anything, it should be the importance of investing in wider preparedness and resilience. We need to avoid a lurch into the ‘Covid-ization’ of research systems, if it comes at the expense of other areas which may be the source of the next crisis, or the one after that.”