Measuring Impacts of COVID-19 on International, Collaborative Research in Increasingly Virtual Environments

LSU sociologist Wesley Shrum has received yet another award from the National Science Foundation to help guide policy, establish best practices, and assess the actual value of being able to meet face to face. His new project will take him to India, Kenya, and Ghana—and, for the first time in a research context, around his city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

 

Wesley Shrum

Wesley Shrum

 

BATON ROUGE, February 12, 2021

LSU sociology professor Wesley Shrum has received a second RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, for research related to COVID-19. This new $198K grant will fund an international study on the impacts of the pandemic on collaboration in research and education—especially in environmental sciences, natural resource management, and sustainability; work that’s considered critical and time-sensitive, yet subject to health concerns, travel restrictions, and budget cuts as other pressing issues (such as COVID-19 infection and death rates) might take precedence in resource-restricted contexts.
 
Shrum’s study will involve at least 1,100 interviews with scientists in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Trivandrum, India; Nairobi, Kenya; and Accra, Ghana. While he’s done research in Africa and Asia and elsewhere in the world for over 30 years, this will be the first time Shrum includes a U.S. component in what is an ongoing, longitudinal study that will compare new findings in 2021 with previous data gathered in 2010, 2005, 2000, and 1994. Shrum’s expertise is on human adoption and adaptations to new information and communications technologies, including cell phones with generous data plans, WhatsApp, and Zoom meetings.

 

His new project will not only try to find innovative ways in which scientists have continued on with their work during the pandemic, it will also assess how much already available and familiar technology might have prepared the scientific community and made it resilient to the myriad COVID-19 disruptions; whether men and women have had different experiences and responses; and the overall value of face-to-face meetings as part of team collaborations and conferences.


While Shrum’s previous RAPID grant was a study of how people around the globe are changing their behaviors due to fears of getting sick with the coronavirus, he harbors a fear of his own when it comes to this new project.
 
“Exactly what the pandemic’s impact has been on research and international, scientific collaboration will be very hard to say if there’s no research going on at all—that’s what I’m scared to find,” Shrum said.
 
He should know—he’s involved in another ongoing NSF-sponsored project on paleontologists searching for fossils of the earliest humans in Kenya, which is at a standstill due to COVID-19.
 
“That project definitely qualifies as an international research collaboration since all of these ancient fossils are owned by Kenyans and we have to work with them to be able to go there and collect data,” Shrum said. “And I can tell you, that project has not moved forward even one inch since the coronavirus, so there have been no technological adaptations. We just put it on hold.”
 
Shrum still hopes to return to Kenya this May:
 
“Northwest Kenya is probably the least dangerous place to be right now because there is almost no one there and likely no coronavirus, unless we bring it with us when we go.”
 
His new project will not only try to find innovative ways in which scientists have continued on with their work during the pandemic, it will also assess how much already available and familiar technology might have prepared the scientific community and made it resilient to the myriad COVID-19 disruptions; whether men and women have had different experiences and responses; and the overall value of face-to-face meetings as part of team collaborations and conferences.
 
“There was some doubt, even before the pandemic, about the importance of in-person contact,” Shrum said. “But we’ve learned some things. On the one hand, we know people don’t like virtual meetings as much. But have collaborations suffered? Not necessarily. Collaborations are easy to manage if you can just send a few emails around. But it’s the coffee breaks and hallway gatherings—the random stuff—you miss out on. So, if you attend a conference online, you’re probably missing out on what might be truly essential to that face-to-face conference.”
 
“Also,” Shrum continued. “We’ve seen more equal opportunities for women scientists than before. Especially in India, and to a lesser degree in Africa, where women are not as free to travel to conferences because of family obligations. And if they can’t travel to conferences, they can’t meet people and have certain opportunities that would be available to those who do. Now that nobody travels, that problem is declining.”
 
Just how quickly researchers adapted to a new virtual environment became clear to Shrum when he helped organize a virtual conference for 2,000 scientists last fall. They hired a private firm and engineers to help operate and secure over two dozen simultaneous Zoom rooms for four days only to find out they didn’t need the help.
 
“There really was no need for that level of technical support, which we paid top dollar for,” Shrum said. “During those months from March to August, we had all gotten pretty proficient at using the technology.”
 
Meanwhile, the technology itself wasn’t new. Compared to the rollout of mobile phones and later internet-enabled ones, with various communication and networking apps, the last decade has brought proliferation rather than major innovation, Shrum argues.
 
“We haven't seen too many rapid advances in the past 10 years,” he said. “So, it will also be really important to see what scientific and research networks look like now when our communication technologies have become normal or routine, including in India and Sub-Saharan Africa. This will make for very interesting comparisons.”

 

Fears of Getting Sick with the Coronavirus, Founded and Unfounded, Are Changing People’s Behaviors Around the Globe

Finding Humans: Studying Paleontologists at Work

 

 

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development
ehahne@lsu.edu