Could pre-Covid-19 research into coronaviruses have been otherwise? Episode one: Careers

Could pre-Covid-19 research into coronaviruses have been otherwise? Episode one: Careers

Could coronavirus-related research (CRR) pre-Covid-19 have been otherwise? In this series we examine pre-pandemic publications in CRR, asking how issues of careers, funding, and geopolitics may have affected the state of knowledge in CRR. Ep.1: Careers.

Months into the corona crisis we are living in a world changed, for better or worse things are other than they once were. It is obvious many countries were underprepared, but does it make sense to ask—could this have been otherwise? Indeed, this is a prodigious question, one unlikely to be answered comprehensively by a blog post. Still, it is the goal of this short series of blog posts to reflect on one small portion of this almost overwhelming question. In our first installment we reflect on pre-pandemic research funding for coronaviruses (like SARS) and its impact on research careers in an attempt to understand how these potential pieces might fit into the larger puzzle that is the corona crisis.

There were warnings. Public health officials, epidemiologists, and researchers of coronaviruses cautioned the world for years of a looming global pandemic. In 2018—the hundredth anniversary of the Spanish flu—the WHO held a discussion entitled: Are we ready for the next pandemic?. Their answer: an emphatic No. Despite these warnings as well as warnings of corresponding global recession, research on coronaviruses (similar to public health research more broadly) remained underfunded. The small research field suffered from a boom-and-bust cycle, corresponding to the two previous outbreaks. First with SARS in 2002 and again in 2012 with the MERS outbreak, funding of coronavirus related research (CRR) increased in response to the outbreak and waned thereafter. This cycle becomes clear when visualizing CRR publications over time (see Figure 1 below)—in 2019 CCR was, again, on the decline.

Fig. 1: Trend in number of publications in the field of corona related research, Web of Science, 1981-2019

We were unsatisfied by this generalized observation and sought to dig deeper into pre-Covid-19 funding for CRR in order to gain a detailed overview of the funding available (see Figure 2). Following the definition as applied in the work of Colavizza et. al, we selected all publications from Web of Science containing the relevant terms in their titles and abstracts to identify a set of publications on CRR and investigated how many of these CRR publications contained explicit funding acknowledgements.

Fig. 2: Trend in number of publications in the field of corona related research (CRR) containing funding acknowledgments, Web of Science, 2010-2019

Upon first inspection one sees a field with a high percentage of (externally) funded research. This high-level of funding was unexpected as it, initially, seems to contradict claims of CRR being underfunded. Yet, we asked ourselves: are there perhaps other explanations? When compared to other scientific fields, like cardiology (known to be well-funded, see Figure 3 below), CRR has a markedly higher percentage of research with funding acknowledgements.

Fig. 3: Trend in number of publications in cardiology research containing funding acknowledgments, Web of Science, 2010-2019

We suggest one potential reason for this trend could be that the field lacks support from the kinds of sustained institutionalized funding (not usually acknowledged in a publication) from which well-funded fields like cardiology may benefit and, thus, relies heavily on external grant-based funding. Potentially, reliance on this type of—often temporary and precarious—funding mechanism could have created many difficulties in the building of sustained research lines on coronaviruses.

Science and evaluation studies have shown the type(s) of funding available to a research field can have great effects on many aspects of its research, such as: the amount of research being conducted; the type(s) of research valued; or the viability and desirability of a career in a certain (sub-)field. Interestingly, some coronavirus researchers themselves describe the field before the crisis as one largely shaped by the waxing and waning of interest in coronaviruses, which led to knowledge gaps in fundamental research and unstable career trajectories for researchers attempting to build a career in coronaviruses. These researchers claimed those in the field struggled both to justify their continued research to funding bodies and to establish themselves in the field, leading many to choose a research path outside of it. They contend this early-stage exodus of researchers from the field produced a distinct career stratification with a very minimal middle-stage stratum.

Building upon our examination of pre-pandemic coronavirus funding and the assertions of these coronavirus researchers, we decided to look deeper into their claims by analyzing CRR careers via publication trends in relation to academic age of pre-pandemic coronavirus researchers—with academic age (i.e. amount of years since a researcher’s first publication in CRR) acting as a proxy for the amount of years a researcher remained active in CRR. Our preliminary findings seem to support their claims, displaying atypical field characteristics.

Fig. 4: Connecting career stages to CRR related output shares, Web of Science, 1981-2019.

As visible in Figure 4, one can discern a large cohort of young scientists, who appear to be publishing most of their work in the field; a number of well-established, long-term researchers, who have only a share of their research in the field; and a noticeable absence of cohorts in between. In most research fields one could expect to track multiple cohorts of researchers as they move through their research careers, but this movement appears to be absent in pre-pandemic CRR. Instead, it seems a large majority of starting researchers disappear from CRR after their first 4 to 7 years and few publications, suggesting, after their PhD or post-doc, these researchers move to other areas or leave research altogether. Another interesting trend is noticeable amongst the established researchers, who seem to only have a modest share of their output (less than 10% of their total output) in CRR. Although comparisons with other fields of research are needed to further substantiate these findings, they indeed suggest building a sustained career on CRR alone is very difficult—or at the very least unlikely to happen. Furthermore, our findings are indicative of a field brimming with uncertainty and instability—qualities that seem counterproductive for understanding a group of deadly viruses.

For now, the questions remain: What do these initial findings mean? What could we as a society have done differently? And, if something is to be gained: How can we perhaps learn from our mistakes in order to be better prepared in the future? There are many more viruses in existence with pandemic potential—coronaviruses are just one of them. In addition, let us not forget there are many common,  harmful pathogens that remain disproportionately understudied and underfunded—particularly those occurring mostly outside the global North (e.g. Tuberculosis, Malaria and Ebola). Learning how to better research and respond to these threats may also necessitate a long, hard look at what types of research on pathogens is deemed worthy of funding and why, with particular attention given to their geographies.

Much more research is urgently needed. For our next episodes, we are working on deepening our exploration into pre-pandemic funding of CRR and its effects on both the structure and knowledge production potential of coronavirus research. This blog post is meant to be provocative, not conclusive. As our explorations into the peculiarities of CRR in relation to research careers and funding are only tentative, it is our hope that this provocation invites you to join us in the discussion. So, we leave you with some important questions: What do you think this means? Could certain systematic issues of how research is funded and how careers can (or cannot) be built on particular topics have made a crucial difference in the pre-pandemic state of our knowledge on coronaviruses? Could it have been otherwise?

A note from the authors: a full academic version of the blogpost with further explanations of the material can be received from the first author upon request.

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