Working as an ecologist during COVID-19

David Eldridge (University of New South Wales)

A few months ago I wrote about my experiences as a field-based ecologist during the COVID-19 lockdown, for the journal Functional Ecology. Reflecting on that post, I now realise that it was a rather frivolous perspective on what is clearly a very difficult time for everyone. 

For me, the arrival of the pandemic corresponded with a 12-month leave of absence from my employer in the NSW Government; but it spelt the end of my planned travel to the University of Alicante, Spain to work with colleagues, and to Beijing, where I was to run two writing workshops. Being generally an optimistic type, I saw the lockdown, my inability to travel, and 12 months away from the micro-management of my department, as an opportunity to complete half-written manuscripts, finish off CDK (Chief Doesn’t Know) research, and increase my research productivity. 

However, it didn’t work out that way. My Plan B ended up including painting the house and renovating my possum boxes. I also tried to maintain my enthusiasm for research, in the absence of field work, catching up with friends, and little real contact with students and colleagues. 

I could go through an exhaustive list of the problems that students have experienced as a result of the pandemic, but I’m sure we are all well aware of them. But there are some ways that students have managed to cope. Nancy Briggs, a Senior Statistical Consultant at the University of New South Wales, recently ran a workshop on how to do science without actually collecting new data. This included revisiting old datasets, or combining datasets with those freely available on data sharing hubs such as Dryad or Figshare to ask new questions or question existing paradigms. 

The pandemic has also provided an opportunity to dust off old manuscripts. If you are a late-career researcher like me, consider involving graduate students in some of these lost manuscripts and data sets. Together with a PhD student, I recently published the results of an experiment I set up in 1984 but had never got around to writing up. Collaborating with a keen student led to the research being published in Restoration Ecology. This work would probably never have seen the light of day if it had not been for the pandemic. The lockdown can also be a great opportunity to start that meta-analysis you have always wanted to do. Being unable to go to the field to collect new data does not mean the end of science. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many ecologists work and conduct research, with less field time and more screen time. Credit: David Eldridge

Although the lockdown is all but over in NSW, things have not exactly returned to normal. Many of our students have realised that they don’t need to be on campus to do their work, and academics have found that they are more productive working from home. The face of the University is changing. There is less spontaneity (‘catching up over coffee’), and our formal interactions are now on the dreaded Zoom or Teams platforms. This digital depersonalisation seems to be the new normal. 

So how does this affect me? I used to love going to scientific conferences and meetings to interact with colleagues, make new friendships and contacts, and catch up on new science. It was also an opportunity to have a break, often in a new place. However, I find the new digital realm deeply unsatisfying, so have lost my interest in conferences. I feel like I am at a standstill waiting to be able to travel, and wonder whether we will ever return to the old conference model. 

The pandemic has also changed the way that I operate as an Editor. It is clear that, as scientists, we are writing more during the pandemic. You only have to compare the number of review requests in the last six months with a similar period 12 months ago. We all have more time to write and submit papers, yet it seems that we can’t find the time to review any. Perhaps the pandemic has made us selfish; batten down the hatches and stay in your bubble. In my experience, the quality of reviews that I receive as an Editor of the two journals I manage is substantially lower than before, perhaps because we are being asked to do more. One downside of this is that manuscripts often receive only one review. In fact, I can’t remember a time when a manuscript of mine was accepted after only one review, by the Editor, but this was my recent experience. She probably got fed up with seeking reviewers. This situation can’t be good for science. Perhaps the time of COVID-19 will be remembered as a watershed in the manuscript reviewing process. Clearly we need a new way of doing peer review. 

But things will change eventually, perhaps not back to the way they were before, but to a situation where we can move around freely, and do what we love to do, albeit with certain restrictions. I look forward to that time. We must all try to stay positive and treat ourselves with kindness. I could not articulate this better than Lauren Hallet from the University of Oregon, USA: “The most useful thing I’ve found is to (try to) let go of my guilt around missed deadlines and let myself get excited about the science. Revisiting why I find my science interesting seems to be the best jump-start for catching up and moving forward.” 

For more information, contact David Eldridge: 

This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin December 2020


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