Under the continued cosh of COVID, Dr Matthew Partridge considers the impact of constant interruptions and how an ongoing reality that randomly, yet regularly, prevents researchers from being able to do any research at all requires new approaches to experimental planning.
Intermittent research is a term for what we've all been trying to do over the last two years.
Working as a researcher is a job that requires a lot of adaptability. This is understandable given that the core of the scientific method could be loosely described as "I reckon this might happen but let's find out", which obviously leads to some variation in outcomes (e.g. oops that explodes vs this would make a delicious pudding).
Even before arriving at an outcome, researchers often have to deal with all kinds of unexpected issues ranging from not having the right equipment, to the equipment refusing to work because the last person using it forgot to calibrate it and you've just driven the expensive pipettes straight into the table. This variability can be frustrating and has inspired more than a few angry tweets and several "I deserve this" doughnuts but after a deep sigh, and some choice words, you adapt and find a way to get back to 'finding out' whatever it is that you're working on. But these are just minor hurdles that are all part of the research journey. What is not a minor hurdle, and yet something we are now all having to cope with, is randomly not being able to do any research at all.
COVID has been merrily doing laps of the world for a couple of years now and I've written before about some of the challenges it has presented, but as the pandemic rolls on we are all facing a problem requiring a whole new level of adaptability -- intermittent research.
Intermittent research is a term for what we've all been trying to do over the last two years. Research that is constantly interrupted by circumstances that aren't 'challenges' to overcome but events that have prevented us all from even setting foot in our labs.
You get COVID and now you need to stay home for ten days and rest up.
Your university changed the social distancing rules and now only two of you can be in a lab that used to have ten and you can only work every third Tuesday.
You petted your neighbour's cat, which then tested positive, and Test and Tails now says you have to stay home and self-isolate just in case.
A country wide rise in cases causes a national lockdown and you have to 'research from home'.
All of which bring any lab-based experiment to a grinding halt because research institutions tend to be oddly picky about you taking things like HPLC machines home with you and consumable manufacturers get a bit fussy about delivering litres of sulphuric acid to a flat. So, we have to intermittently stop, and start and stop and start and... well you get the idea.
I’ve also started deliberately saving up paperwork so that, should I have to be away from the lab, I have something to get on with other than pining for my laser. I rarely need encouragement to put off filling in COSSH forms, so it works well. Although, I can tell you that nothing makes COVID feel worse than trying to recover while writing up the risks of working with a mild irritant. Perhaps we need to adapt permanently to an intermittent working style. Perhaps we all need to be more understanding about shared space, or we could start working in research teams to balance time lost? Perhaps we should all look at the problem of intermittent research as an opportunity to finally find a way to do research while sipping lattes.
Author: Dr Matthew Partridge is a researcher, cartoonist and writer who runs the outreach blog errantscience.com