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How the Coronavirus is Hampering Science

Research meetings are being canceled left and right over epidemic fears, slowing the work of scientists—especially those who are early in their career.

While scientists are scrambling to understand the novel coronavirus and contain the chaos it has unleashed, the outbreak is creating chaos within science itself.

As confirmed COVID-19 cases increase in the U.S. and around the globe, gatherings of all kinds are being canceled or postponed. They include tech developer conferences, book fairs, rock concerts, automobile expositions, a United Nations–sponsored climate week—and numerous scientific meetings, which are normally fertile ground for new ideas and collaborations. “The next thing for me is the Titan Through Time meeting in Boulder, [Colo.], and they haven’t said anything yet about whether it will happen,” says Sarah Hörst, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “Oh, I just got an e-mail that they postponed it.”

At the same time, research institutions and government agencies are enacting increasingly strict restrictions that prohibit scientists from traveling internationally and domestically. For now, many researchers are switching to virtual meetings (and online university classes). Yet such substitutions cannot fully replace what is lost because in-person gatherings are crucial for collaborations, as well as large-scale projects, such as designing spacecraft or detecting gravitational waves. And many scientists worry that a protracted stretch of cancelations will hit particularly hard among students and early-career researchers, who rely on meetings to find jobs and make their work known. “They don’t have that opportunity to show off their science and network,” says Louise Prockter, a planetary scientist and director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Universities Space Research Association.

The past couple of weeks have seen a rise in travel restrictions, with some guidelines becoming stricter as the outbreak intensifies. NASA’s restrictions vary by center, with some scientists prohibited from any international trips that are not “mission-essential”—defined, in part, in a memo to Jet Propulsion Laboratory personnel as “travel that requires in-person support to delivery, integration and test of flight hardware.” Yet other NASA centers are also limiting domestic travel to only the most essential activities, although, as of publication, there is no agency-wide ban on in-country activities. And NASA’s Ames Research Center in California asked all employees to telecommute after one staffer tested positive for coronavirus.

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory also instituted guidelines restricting all work-related trips. Some universities, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are banning university-related travel to areas affected by COVID-19, including California and Washington State. And the European Space Agency (ESA) is limiting its scientists to attending only the highest-priority events—and is blocking nonbusiness visitors from its facilities. “We are afraid that we’ll have the virus in our operation center—where you control satellites and where the scientific missions are operated,” says ESA director general Jan Wörner. The operation center’s staff is divided into two teams, which are not allowed to come into contact with each other in an effort to prevent the virus spreading between them.

Scientists travel frequently to present their work, give public talks, review proposals, design space missions and attend conferences—many of which see a significant number of international attendees. “It’s hard to figure out how to plan for anything right now, not knowing what restrictions might be in place and just wanting to try to be a good human—and not be a vector,” Hörst says.

Deciding to cancel a conference, especially in the early days of COVID-19, is never an easy decision. “It’s been a pretty tough week,” says Prockter, co-chair of the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC), a meeting of more than 1,500 scientists that was scheduled to be held later this month. But like so many other conferences, LPSC will not happen. Prockter says she and her colleagues had to consider the risks to both attendees and conference staffers, who would be exposed to travelers from all over the planet. “The tide was too far over in the direction of not being sure we could keep people safe, and so we decided that the best thing to do for our community and our staff was to cancel the meeting,” Prockter says. “The community seems to be very supportive of us.”

Most major scientific societies hold at least one conference per year, where far-flung members of a field can present their work, meet new collaborators and sift through ideas. Hörst, who is now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, says that maybe 10 percent of her research papers are the result of a conversation she had at a conference when she was a graduate student. You also go there to sit in the hallways and talk about what you just heard and your new ideas and what’s working and what’s not working,” says Karen Daniels, a physicist at North Carolina State University.

Recently, she and 10,000 other physicists found out that the March meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) had been abruptly canceled—barely a full day before the conference was scheduled to start in Denver. Many scientists, a lot of them traveling internationally, were already in Denver or were on their way over when they learned of the last-minute change. The decision stunned the community because of its timing but not because of the rationale. “Thousands of people who travel there, mingle, share food and drink, and then travel back where they came from? That’s the definition of a public health hazard,” Daniels says. “We don’t want to be in the position, as a society, of contributing to a public health hazard.”

In response, she helped organize a virtual meeting for her division in the APS, which is focused on soft matter physics, or the ways in which squishable materials behave in response to external forces. After a few scheduling nightmares, Daniels says, folks wanting to present their talks signed up for slots over the Zoom videoconferencing service. “There have been a mix of presenters—members of the National Academy [of Sciences], senior people, undergrads,” she says. “The talks have been fantastic.”

But even though the virtual conference is working quite well, Daniels says, the impact of missing the March APS meeting will likely still be felt, especially by early-career researchers.

Undergraduates, grad students and postdocs rely on conferences to meet more senior scientists, present their work and find jobs. Prockter, who studies icy worlds in the outer solar system, says she uses LPSC to find and interview postdocs and to see potential candidates in action. “Conferences are more important when people don’t know who you are, and they don’t know what kind of science you’ve been doing, and you have a chance to say, ‘Hey, I’m looking for a job right now,’” Hörst says.

So she organized several online spreadsheets where scientists affected by the cancelations can advertise their work. Daniels says that providing a platform and visibility to affected physics students was a primary motivation for developing the virtual conference, because those 10-minute talks “are a pretty big deal in our community. They’re what people’s careers are built on.”

But Sara Bey, an undergraduate physics major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, is not too worried—yet. “At the end of the day, this one opportunity should not be a “make or break” opportunity,” says Bey, who would have made her first major research presentation at the APS meeting. “The success of any individual depends on much more than one conference.”


Scientific American | 2020

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