Speed of science: slowing down and speeding up scientific research in the age of COVID-19 // Kristin Hussey

In late November 2020, Science Gallery in Dublin opened a new exhibition entitled ‘Speed of Science’.1 The exhibit is sponsored (unsurprisingly) by the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, who in November 2020 announced a successful Stage 3 trial of its coronavirus vaccine, making it the fastest vaccine ever developed.2 Science Gallery’s display explores the body’s immune system and how mRNA vaccines work – timed to launch almost simultaneously with the distribution of the company’s product in the neighboring United Kingdom, after a lightning fast development and approvals process.3 That science moves quickly is not something new to the year 2020 – with competition within the scientific sector to publish new findings or patent new technologies creating a culture of (calculated) rapidity.4 Indeed, the practice of science has been underlined by the need for speed since at least the nineteenth century.5 As Isabelle Stengers has argued, the experimental sciences are the birthplace of the ‘fast science model’ – in which facts are verified by competent observers leading up to the all-important publication in a high impact scientific journal.6 However, the compression of the vaccine development period from years to a matter of months is perhaps one of the most dramatic examples of the speed of science yet.

While the development of the vaccine is a testament to the ability of scientific research to achieve ‘warp speed’ in certain conditions,7 for most scientists the 2020 coronavirus lockdown(s) brought a screeching halt to experimental science. Whether from the shutdown of access to laboratory facilities, or the reallocation of resources into virus research – there has been perhaps no time period which has been simultaneously both faster and slower for science. Science, as in all aspects of human society, is characterized by overlapping time scales, speeds and durations- from the scientist at the bench efficiently pipetting, to one at home struggling with childcare issues, and even from the perspective of the much shorter life spans of the model organisms, cells or viruses. Like the biological cycles that many medical scientists study, I would like to suggest that the continuing disruption of COVID-19 may be seen as acting like a feedback loop – the inevitable slowdown caused by the pandemic’s interruption to scientific working lives seeming to create a greater need for speed in order to ‘catch up’ before another (seemingly inevitable) shutdown.

This short commentary considers how the experiences of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), a part of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, might usefully illustrate the ‘looping’ temporal regimes of science which have been heightened during the last pandemic year.8 CBMR, as its name implies, is a basic research center focused on the underlying biology and physiology of metabolism and its disorders, and where the author holds a postdoctoral fellowship working alongside circadian scientists.

The University of Copenhagen forms a part of the public sector in Denmark, and was therefore one of the first institutions to close in the initial phases of the early 2020 lockdown on 11 March, followed by a national shutdown on 13 March.9 Scientists were instructed to work from home, except for a small handful of technicians who visited for the care of research animals. ‘Slack’ groups and other online working models appeared overnight, staff were encouraged to take the opportunity to write up and submit any outstanding data, and to capitalize on more time to catch up on reading. In May 2020, as the lockdown eased, the author circulated to CBMR staff a survey asking questions about their temporal experience of lockdown – the perceived speeding up or slowing down of their working lives, whether they had sensed any circadian disruption, their thoughts on the future pace of science – from which quotes included here are drawn. This material is part of a research article in the early stages of development.10

For many in the center, the lockdown was nothing short of a complete cessation of work. While there was some (mostly tongue-in-cheek) discussion that scientists should attempt to continue experimental science from home, in the main, the stay-at-home order represented a complete break from the speed of science. For some, this period of reprieve was welcome. Some survey respondents observed that the disruption allowed them to ‘catch up’ on lost sleep accrued during previously hectic working lives. The marked slowdown was experienced by others as an opportunity for fostering creativity and new ideas: ‘I have allowed myself to spend more time on reading and hypotheses generation which for me requires some freedom to allow creative thoughts to arrive.’ Freed from the strict time regimes of laboratory science, many staff members enjoyed the flexibility of home working – increased ability to exercise, to prepare meals, to spend time with family.

On the other hand, center staff were acutely aware that the lockdown would do little to quell the speed of science in the long-term. One scientist reflected that despite expecting the lockdown to ‘decrease the pace’ of science, they had felt even more pressure to ‘move forward’ as quickly as possible. In the highly competitive world of science, the seriousness of the slowdown was judged relative to the pace of science elsewhere, with one participant observing they felt some ‘consolation’ in the fact that the speed of research around the world ‘has also slowed down’. Competition with other scientists for discoveries, publications and grants was never far off, with one scientist reflecting that it was, ‘A comfort to me is that the whole world is affected by this and scientific progress for all my competitors are also affected.’ Here the respondent alludes to the knowledge economy in the experimental sciences – in which global competition for the (speedy) publication of results in high-ranking journals form the basis of all important grant money and career progression. Viewed from these perspectives, the lockdown slowdown was less an opportunity for creative reflection, and more a temporary setback – lost time that would need to be quickly compensated for once the world (and the lab) opened up again.

The period in between the first and what has now (writing in December 2020) become a second lockdown was marked by a seemingly permanent change to access conditions in the university laboratories of which CBMR forms a part. Restrictions on entering the campus laboratory buildings remained in place through the entire 2020 period – representing a new normal in which the world of science became even more inaccessible. Scientists and students continued to try to ‘catch up’ on their projects. For PhD students and other early career researchers, a grim awareness that it was time they would never get back. One survey respondent, reflecting on their views of the future pace of science, bemoaned: ‘My career clock has remained the same but my ability to work has been incredibly impacted.’

On 7 December 2020, a new partial lockdown was announced in the Copenhagen area, again resulting in all public sector employees (including scientific staff at the universities) being sent home unless performing critical functions.11 While working from home (when possible) has continued to be the norm across many sectors, in this new lockdown 2.0, experimental bench science has not stopped (subject to special permissions and restrictions on attendance numbers). Perhaps, with more known about the virus and its methods of spreading, authorities felt there was sufficient scientific grounding for a measured continuation of research. New studies in transmissibility have helped university authorities, as in other sectors, establish clearer guidelines for social distancing – leading to a focus on limiting rather than stopping attendance. But perhaps we can speculate that science cannot afford to repeat the complete break in productivity represented by lockdown 1.0. With grant income at risk and early career researchers in tenuous positions, new solutions to ensure the pace of research output must be found – or at least so long as the neoliberal model of academic and scientific research prevails.12

Yet where does this leave the creativity fostering benefits of scientific slowness? And how might this new, more moderate lockdown affect working lives in comparison to the complete stoppage of spring 2020? The answers to these questions are as yet unknown. However, the arrival of the new (speedy scientific) vaccine seems to herald a rapid return (or continuation) to a busy and un-interrupted research laboratory. As the participants in the survey have indicated, the slowness of the pandemic has been accompanied by an attendant sense of a future in which scientific speed is more, rather than less, important. While the near complete stoppage of the early spring 2020 may have been accompanied by a slowness for scientists, there is a sense in which there is a future price to be paid for this period. The competition for outputs, for grants, and new knowledge remains, and our respondents do not anticipate any changes to the ‘fast science model’ in the future. The COVID-19 lockdown(s) then force us to ask – what is a sustainable speed for science? How can we balance the need for acceleration and discovery and the benefits derived from slowness, creativity, and self-care?

The view from CBMR and its pandemic experiences suggests that what is needed is not a return (or race) to the previous speed of science, or even necessarily the implementation of ‘slow science’ or slow academia movement, as Stengers and others have suggested.13 The scientists interviewed did not indicate that the lockdowns have created a slow utopia for science. While some have found a space for creativity, others have encountered frustrating insurmountable obstacles. The responses suggest a need for the creation of something like a locally adjusted feedback loop – one in which alternating and interconnected speed and slowness reflect the productivity cycles of the scientists in a particular institution. Periods of focused introspection and creativity give way to rapid production and output before looping back again. Such looping times of science should, if we are to follow the lessons of COVID-19, be sensitive to the individual situations of the scientists themselves – age, gender, caring responsibilities, physical and mental health experiences.

Put simply, slowness and speed look differently for different people – and the pandemic has highlighted how temporal disruptions are not borne equally. Whether global science, and indeed academia, might be willing to shift in reaction to the time inequalities revealed by the pandemic is still to be seen. As Stengers has observed, ‘Slowing down means becoming capable of learning again’ – viewing the costs of speed, and reflecting on the status quo.14 However, if we are to follow the responses here, no such reckoning is currently underway in the global practice of science at speed.

Acknowledgements: With thanks to Associate Professor Louise Whiteley for her feedback and insights. This research is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation (NNF18CC0034900).

Kristin Hussey is a postdoctoral researcher at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) and Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen. She is a historian and curator whose current project Body Time explores circadian rhythms in cultural and historical context.


Footnotes:

1 ‘Speed of Science’, Science Gallery Dublin https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/sos [Accessed 21.12.2020]

2 ’Pfizer and BioNTech Announce Vaccine Candidate Against COVID-19 Achieved Success in First Interim Analysis from Phase 3 Study’, Pfizer.com, 9.11.2020, https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-announce-vaccine-candidate-against [Accessed 21.12.2020] ; Sandy Cohen, ‘The Fastest Vaccine in History,’ UCLA Health, 10.12.2020, https://connect.uclahealth.org/2020/12/10/the-fastest-vaccine-in-history/ [accessed 20.01.2021]

3 ‘COVID-19: First person received Pfizer Jab in the UK’, BBC News, 9.12.2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-55227325 [Accessed 21.12.2020]

4 Quite how rapid depending on both local and international contexts and infrastructures, see R. Whitley, ‘Competition and pluralism in the public sciences: the impact of institutional frameworks on the organization of academic science,’ Research Policy 32 (6), 2003: 1015-1029.

5 Melinda Baldwin, ‘Keeping in the race’: Physics, publication speed and national publishing strategies in Nature, 1895-1939,’ The British Journal for the History of Science, 47 (2) (2014): 257-279; Lutz Bormann and Rudiger Mutz, ‘Growth Rates of Modern Science: Analysis Based on the Number of Cited References,’ Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 2015. DOI: 10.1002/asi.23329

6 Isabelle Stengers, Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for Slow Science, trans. Stephen Muecke, Polity Press 2018, 36.

7 Lipworth et al. ‘Science at Warp Speed: Medical Research, Publication and Translation During the COVID-19 Pandemic,’ Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 17 (4) (2020): 555-561.

8 The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research, https://cbmr.ku.dk/ [Accessed 21.12.2020]

9 ‘Denmark Shuts down Schools and Universities to fight coronavirus pandemic’ TheLocal.dk, 11.03.2020 https://www.thelocal.dk/20200311/denmark-to-shut-all-schools-and-universities-to-fight-virus [Accessed 21.12.2020]

10 Kristin Hussey and Louise Whiteley, ‘Scientific working lives and the COVID-19 pandemic’ (in development)

11 ’New restrictions: large parts of campus are closing’, 08.12.2020, https://kunet.ku.dk/nyhedsrum/nyheder/Sider/Nye-restriktioner-Store-dele-af-campus-lukker.aspx [Accessed 21.12.2020]

12 Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., & Curran, W. (2015). ’For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University,’ ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(4), 1235-1259. Retrieved from https://www.acme-journal.org/index.php/acme/article/view/1058

13 Stengers 2018; Maggie Berg and Barbaara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, University of Toronto Press, 2016; Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal, ‘Against the ‘slow professor’’ MarkCarrigan.net 13.04.2016 https://markcarrigan.net/2016/04/13/against-the-slow-professor/ [Accessed 20.01.2021]

14 Stengers, 2018, 49.