What is the future of lab work in a post-Covid-19 world?

26 Aug 2020

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24-hour shift work, changing office layouts and hand sanitiser stations are just some of what makes up the ‘new normal’ in labs across the world.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that when it comes to research, how we do it is not an exact science. Like many other industries, research has been turned on its head with anyone who can work from home being asked to do so.

While academics who are largely laptop-based or those working in the elements in field research could find ways of doing this, those based in the lab have had to change their routine drastically. After all, some of this work could be lifesaving, and other projects could fall apart without constant supervision.

‘Not impossible… but it’s not easy’

Across the world, universities and research centres quickly adapted to the rapidly evolving situation, finding new ways to keep labs open without putting anyone’s life at risk.

For example, speaking with Nature, John Morrison, the director of the US National Primate Research Center at the University of California, Davis, described how its on-site staff numbers have been halved in addition to staggering researchers’ shifts and spreading out across labs as much as possible.

The same goes for other nations across the world. Viji Vijayan of the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School described other methods of distancing including different research teams wearing different coloured stickers so that they can avoid people from other teams in enclosed spaces.

As Vijayan summed up to Nature: “It’s not impossible to continue lab experiments. But it’s not easy.”

But what about Ireland? Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com earlier this year, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) director general Prof Mark Ferguson alluded to similar new rules put in place and the challenge of getting the research community back in the labs.

“With social distancing, they’re going to have to be doing shift work 24 hours a day because you can get fewer people into the laboratories,” he said. “Like all aspects of the economy and industry, the research community is going to have to adapt to these new conditions.”

And so, from this necessity, researchers from across SFI’s centres, led by Prof Jerry Murphy of the Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI) centre based at University College Cork, drew up a set of general guidelines that will likely guide Irish research for months – if not years to come.

‘Scrambling in the dark’

A copy of the guidelines seen by Siliconrepublic.com describes a significant number of possible rules the centres could put in place, including requiring a security pass with opt-in tracking to monitor movements, propping open doors where possible and a booking system to access times for lab work.

It also states that the lifting of these restrictions on lab work will, in a similar manner to the Government’s rules, be done in phases based on the priority of research. Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir, director of MaREI and one of those to help develop the guidelines for SFI centres, said the whole experience of putting it together was an “interesting process” that was not exactly straightforward.

“Everyone was scrambling in the dark in many ways,” he said. “While obviously health and safety guidelines are widely available and there are long-established protocols, dealing with a pandemic raised so many urgent challenges and changes in how we need to do things.”

From MaREI’s perspective, there were some experiments underway that needed near-constant human oversight. This included research into biogas where bacterial anaerobic processes needed to be maintained by a skeletal crew of researchers to prevent months and years of work from being ruled null and void.

“Initially we were thinking of our own needs, but the processes and protocols you develop are transferable as a lot of labs and work spaces have the same kind of challenges,” Ó Gallachóir said.

“How do you move people around in the factories? How do you ensure their safety, minimise contact, what to do in certain situations etc.”

A long-term change

Ó Gallachóir said that what they set in place allowed for the Environmental Research Institute’s labs to reopen on 18 May and it was “very heartening” to learn about the traction these guidelines gained internationally.

“[Through the SFI we] received great feedback from the US and a number of European countries. What we had developed was seen as providing a useful basis containing the types of information that could be required for research facilities, but also in terms of informing the general opening up of economies.”

Looking to the future, many of the guidelines that have been taken on board since April remain, even with some more allowances made on movement by the Government. According to Ó Gallachóir, researchers can expect them to remain in place for some time yet and especially when the new academic year gets underway.

“Until we have a vaccine, we will need these measures to be in place. Because it’s only at that point that people’s safety can be ensured,” he said.

“There’s different challenges with individual [lab] openings because of different types of activities, but essentially the basic protocols and procedures can be a good starting point for what we need to watch out for when opening other facilities or services.”

Funding impact

Despite efforts globally to continue research as much as possible, one new factor that will have a significant impact is how vital studies will be funded going forward. While this has long been an issue for front-edge research, the additional restrictions imposed by Covid-19 also have a financial cost.

PPE, cleaning products and other equipment needed to ensure personal safety will now need to be factored into research budgets more than ever before.

Not only that, but projects have been postponed that could be crucial to a researcher’s livelihood. According to Ó Gallachóir, these added costs have been somewhat counterbalanced by platforms such as Zoom allowing for webinars, which eliminates travel costs and their carbon footprint.

“It hasn’t been an easy process and I’m very happy with how our researchers have embraced the challenge despite all the difficulties they posed,” he said.

“During the months of lockdown, we arranged many more webinars and with travel restrictions we had higher attendance rates because they were more accessible.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic