6 April 2022

Navigating research amid the pandemic

By Prof Ida Fatimawati Adi Badiozaman i

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has brought about changes in all aspects of our work, life, and play, including the university’s research scholarship. Many research required amendments in design, protocols, data collection, and team operations. Research projects were halted in clinical and lab settings due to surging coronavirus cases, the need for personal protective equipment, and personnel shortages. Indeed, researchers grappled with whether to continue or pause existing studies and initiate new studies, considering the potential risks and benefits to participants in terms of mental health, exposure risks and the relevance of the research given the turbulent context. To mitigate this, The World Health Organization (WHO) (WHO Working Group on Ethics and COVID-19, 2020) reiterated several overarching ethical principles, including scientific validity, collaborative partnerships, fair and voluntary participation, social value, a reasonable risk-benefit ratio, independent review, and equal moral respect for participants and affected communities. Additionally, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2020) published an ethical compass to guide decision-making, with three core elements: reducing suffering, promoting fairness, and fostering equal respect.

The shift in research focus

In the past two years, we saw research topics emerge around responses to the pandemic and interventions to promote health and well-being. Investigators are designing innovative studies to understand and mitigate the long-term effects of the pandemic. These changes have implications for how we design and implement studies and publish our findings and our scholarly productivity. Similarly, funding has been redirected to covid related topics and areas that focus on development strategies post-covid.

The focus on mental health

The mental health of researchers and postgraduate students was affected significantly during the pandemic. While undergraduate wellbeing is often in the limelight, according to global research into 2.279 primarily PhD candidates, postgrads are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population. The transition to remote teaching has made many experience anxiety and depression. Research students face some unique challenges, given that a PhD has always been a potentially isolating experience that relies on a good relationship with a research supervisor. Many higher-degree research students have been forced to put their research activity on hold, with severely impacted access to research infrastructures like libraries and laboratories. Supervision and examinations have also been affected, with much activity moving online. Postgraduate researchers not supported by significant funders may also face challenges in addressing potential funding shortfalls.

Entering the endemic stage

Despite the drawbacks, the pandemic has also brought in some improvements. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven researchers to move the bulk of academic events, such as workshops and conferences, online and to start using videoconferencing tools more often. This approach has proved popular in the global research community. As we enter the endemic stage, we have seen researchers bounce back and embrace technology across research disciplines. Concerning mental health, some have found adequate support within their social networks, developed coping strategies, and participate in activities. Both researchers and higher-degree research students may benefit from long-term professional support, including psychological therapy and counselling. Wider online support for students has been available throughout the pandemic, with all student services providing online access to support for mental health and wellbeing, financial support, and career guidance. Nonetheless, further research is required to explore how best to support research as we enter the endemic stage, for co-constructing effective support measures.

Professor Ida Fatimawati Adi Badiozaman is the Executive Dean of Research, School of Research. She can be contacted at ifaBadiozaman@swinburne.edu.my