Following on from the success of our SDRC Early Career Researcher guest blogs, we wanted to represent our more established researchers as well. We are delighted to share a blog from Dr Terry Quinn, Clinical Senior Lecturer from the University of Glasgow and SDRC Executive Committee member. Read Terry’s blog on the impact of Covid on research below:
It was my idea to curate some new blog content for SDRC. I wanted senior dementia researchers to reflect on their experiences and learning from covid-19. The covid-19 blogs we have featured from our early career researchers have been amazing – sometimes witty, inspiring, moving and often all three. I was sure that our Principal Investigators would equally have something useful to share with the dementia research community on the impact of covid on their research. However, as I sit down to draft the first of these blogs, I am struggling to think what to say. My experience of trying to run research during covid-19 has been such a mess of contradictions. To be honest, I am not sure I have made sense of it all yet. Maybe writing will help. So, with apologies to Dickens, here goes…
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Of course, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that covid-19 was simply the worst of times. In fact, I would probably agree. I have been disappointed by the ‘golden lining’ narrative coming from some senior policy makers with the suggestion that covid-19 offers unique ‘opportunities’ for researchers. Covid-19 isn’t a CV polishing opportunity. It is a dreadful viral pandemic that has killed half a million people. Any other interpretation of the situation can only come from people that haven’t experienced the ravages of covid-19 up close.
Advice from senior researchers that their more junior staff should use time away from the lab to write up papers and grants must be particularly galling if your lockdown days are spent variously home-schooling, wondering if you will still be employed next month and generally trying to keep yourself and your family alive. Covid-19 has taken the inequalities that always existed in academia and exaggerated them to a depressing extreme. If you are a parent, or a caregiver, or work in clinical services, or come from one of the minority backgrounds particularly susceptible to covid-19, then the viral pandemic is making research life harder and harder – and let’s be honest, it was never exactly an easy ride to begin with. So rather than send impersonal group emails encouraging teams to work harder, I think it is incumbent upon senior academics to be pro-active in helping early career researchers.
What should we do? Well, I hope these blogs can be a forum for PIs to share their ideas and signpost to resources.
What am I going to do for early career researchers?
I am going to do whatever I can.
It almost killed me, it almost saved me
It was February 2020 BC (before covid), I was coming back from another meeting, waiting for another delayed plane and having to make another apologetic phone-call home. I started thinking, that if this is all that clinical academia can offer then something in my life has to change. Little did I know how much things were going to change. Fast forward one month and my academic uniform of tweed jacket and laptop case had been replaced by surgical scrubs and (when it was available) some pretty flimsy PPE. Going back to full time clinical work and looking after older adults with covid-19 gave me some much-needed perspective. The work wasn’t easy. In fact, it was a relentless slog, both physically and emotionally. Of course, lots of other people worked much harder than me and I am not trying to claim any glory for simply doing my job, but I saw enough to pray we don’t have to go through it again.
Although with every shift there was a back of the mind fear that I might get sick, my time on the covid wards helped me in many ways. I was able to rediscover the things that had attracted me to medicine and to research. There was a real sense of team working and common purpose. Each day we were discovering new things and we would share this information while also learning from other teams’ experiences. We had no choice. We had to work this way if we wanted to survive and help patients survive. This is how we should be approaching clinical research in the covid landscape – as a team effort, only asking the most important questions and learning from others to improve what we do.
As I start moving back into my usual clinical and academic work pattern, I feel even more passionate about trying to make a difference for people living with dementia, frailty and stroke. However, my time as a covid doctor also taught me the importance of making time for family. You can’t help but rethink your work-life balance when you see first-hand just how fragile and impermeant the life part of that balance is.
It was a terrible time to be old, it was a terrible time to be young
In the first days of covid-19 in the UK the focus was on intensive care and high-profile celebrities becoming sick (and then getting better). However, as is often the case in illness, the disproportionate burden of suffering and tragedy fell on people living with disabilities, people living with frailty and people living with dementia. The messy reality of covid-19 is not photogenic, it can’t be summed up in a glib soundbite and there is no good news angle. I am probably stating the obvious to people reading this blog, but the things I (we?) care about, like frailty, dementia and stroke, haven’t gone away just because the public focus has moved onto all things coronavirus. An indirect casualty of covid-19 is that the progress we were making with these conditions is in danger of being lost. We must be advocates and we must shout louder than ever before for older people living with dementia and other chronic conditions.
It is a grim irony of covid-19 that the careers of those people who could create transformational change in the lives of older people are also facing a guarded prognosis. Our rising star researchers and future research leaders are about to experience the academic equivalent of the Biblical seven years of famine. Research charities are on the brink of bankruptcy, Universities are not hiring and researchers hoping for government funding will have to compete with the many other equally worthy pulls on the Chancellor’s purse strings. We risk losing a whole generation of the best minds. If you have tenure and title, you may not think the fate of early career researchers is a big deal. Well, if we lose young researchers, we lose the foundation that supports academia and we risk that the whole house of cards topples.
In another blog, I will outline some steps we can take to prevent this, but if you want the abridged highlights: we need to focus on people not projects, we need to support academic citizenship and we need genuine cross-institution collaboration.
If you agree, or of you think I am talking nonsense, we want to hear from you. Submit your blog on the impact of covid on research to SDRC and let’s get the conversation going.