Corona-Lockdowns Shutter Vital Research
By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer
The image of invention and research in popular culture centers on the lone genius, toiling away silently in a darkened lab while discovering critical breakthroughs that move society forward. Real life isn’t like the movies: 21st century R&D is highly dependent on multidisciplinary teams working hand in hand at shared research centers spanning multiple geographies to advance critical science.
Unfortunately, the conferences, workshops, and daily interactions that are the lifeblood of modern research have stopped as COVID-19 has shuttered labs and facilities worldwide in the (noble and required) goal of saving lives. As a result, our collective progress on solving critical technical challenges is grinding to a halt.
Strewn about on a wooded hill with commanding views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate, the jumbled campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory sits eerily quiet. But for essential staff and a select group of researchers utilizing specialized equipment for time-sensitive COVID-19 studies, the lab is essentially closed. Specialized equipment found nowhere else on Earth sits mostly idle, user-facilities normally open to outside groups and companies for cutting-edge research are shuttered, and conference rooms are deserted. The lab even posted a video showing empty parking lots and frolicking deer with a somber musical overlay.
The story is the same at national, academic, and corporate labs across the globe. As MIT professor Asegun Henry put it in a recent interview for Scientific American, “We’re shut down. There’s no more lab work. We’re holding meetings virtually, but it’s a devastating blow to our research.” Conferences have stopped, too: The February meeting for Biogen in Boston led to 70 new cases of COVID-19, prompting the cancellation of hundreds of conferences worldwide. Major events, including the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Expo, have been put on ice.
These stoppages have major ramifications, including for the fight against climate change. Ongoing research hampered by the current circumstances include studies of new battery materials, more efficient or cost effective solar systems, and direct air capture of carbon dioxide. Outside the lab, the inability of researchers from across the globe to come together and share recent successes (and failures), identify new opportunities, and form collaborations also hinders progress by limiting knowledge exchange. Simply put, the technology breakthroughs we need to fight climate change are being delayed even though time is of the essence.
Despite this unprecedented setback, there is some hope on the horizon. Nature reports that the break in conferences is giving researchers a chance to rethink the format entirely; collaborative events more impactful, more equitable, and more suited to the current times may yet develop. One such example: MIT launched a weekly webinar series to share progress on new ideas and advancements in the fields of thermal energy conversion, storage, transport and utilization (admittedly esoteric, but close to this author’s heart).
On the policy side, Dr. Addison Stark at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), who has extensive experience in academic and government research, has drawn attention to this issue. The BPC has recommended policy solutions to ensure that research can ramp up when facilities reopen and life returns to some semblance of normal. Addison notes that, “Without federal investment, the current disruption to the United States’ R&D and innovation sector could slow down U.S. economic growth for decades to come. Increased funding for innovation needs to be part of future stimulus and recovery legislation in order to get our innovation-driven economy back on the rails.”
If policymakers listen to these ideas, there may be a silver lining on the COVID-19 pandemic: additional motivation for the badly needed increase in research dollars to support the groundbreaking technologies of tomorrow. If not, we’ll be putting all our faith in that lone genius, toiling away in a darkened lab.
Originally published at https://newenergyrisk.com on May 26, 2020.