The Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences and research institute CAPHRI and have discontinued nearly all their research. CARIM is running a few ‘vital processes’ and are doing their utmost to keep laboratory animals and cells that are being cultivated alive as well as possible. At UNU-MERIT in the city centre, it is largely business as usual, so most researchers are continuing to work. From home of course.
CARIM: “In the case of a lockdown, animals will still be looked after”
Of the more than three hundred researchers, only twenty are still on the work floor, says Tilman Hackeng, research director at CARIM, the UM institute for cardiovascular diseases. “They are technical staff and scientists who take turns at feeding laboratory animals and cells that are being cultivated.”
It is easier for some research institutes to close their doors than others, says Hackeng. “We have a number of vital processes that cannot be stopped, and some are relevant to the present crisis. For example, we are working with blood bank Sanquin to develop a test that can show who has already had the coronavirus and has produced antibodies. This could be important for the question which health care professionals to deploy. We are also making lab equipment suitable for measuring viral RNA in blood so that we can help out should the need for virus tests suddenly increase.”
Another ‘vital process’ has to do with research with cells from patients as an alternative to using laboratory animals. “Those cells have to be kept alive, otherwise they will be lost forever and you would lose a lot of ground.”
A lockdown would therefore have huge consequences for CARIM. “I don’t think it will be a hundred per cent lockdown. Not like all the buildings being hermetically sealed. Animals will still be looked after.”
FPN: “Delay will render long-term research worthless”
The Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences (FPN) has discontinued all its research. Almost all experiments involve healthy test subjects, says Alexander Sack, responsible for research. Whether it concerns questionnaires, computer tasks, behavioural experiments or fMRI studies. All labs are closed.
The greatest problem for FPN is the delay incurred by young researchers. “The majority of research carried out at our faculty is by PhD students and postdocs, who are paid by NWO, Brussels or a variety of funds. These projects usually have an ambitious deadline. NWO has already stated that an extension is on the cards, but the question in the meantime is: who will pay the researchers’ salaries during the extension?”
First the cyberattack, says Sack, preventing the researchers from accessing their data. “The stop is most painful for scientists carrying out longitudinal research, in which they carry out particular tests on the same test subject at set times. A delay will render such a study, in which often a lot of money has been invested, worthless.”
UNU-MERIT: “The IT staff are the heroes during this crisis”
Anyone who had planned to do fieldwork in Ethiopia, should forget about that quickly. The same applies to interview sessions, says UNU-MERIT director Bart Verspagen in a Zoom chat. The institute on the Boschstraat has about eighty researchers, many of whom focus on public policies in third-world countries.
Still, for many it is business as usual. “Many projects can still proceed, because they run on applied statistics. I myself am analysing data for the Asian Development Bank, something I can just as easily do from home. The meeting in Bangkok was replaced by an online meeting.”
Otherwise, UNU-MERIT is following the guidelines given by the government and the UM. “Our building is not a university building, it comes under UN management, but if the UM were to close its buildings, we will too. We have even already decided which employees will be given access in the case of a lockdown. There are about nine people, among them all programme directors and a handful of IT staff. Everything we do is online, so we can’t have servers breaking down. The IT staff are our heroes at the moment.”
Furthermore, it is important to keep the community spirit alive, says Verspagen. “The other day, the PhD co-ordinator used Zoom to organise a coffee break for PhD students. We encourage that kind of social gathering. Continue to talk about what you are dealing with and don’t become a recluse in your own home.”
CAPHRI: “Nearly all research is suspended”
The vast majority of CAPHRI’s research takes place outside the hospital, in the neighbourhoods, on school playgrounds, on the work floor, says scientific director Maurice Zeegers. “This usually concerns public health, a healthy lifestyle. It is the kind of research for which you speak to people, interview them or observe them. All of that has been stopped.”
This means that nearly all of the three hundred researchers are now at home, many of whom will face delays. “At the moment, we cannot estimate the financial consequences.”
Zeegers is also thinking ahead regarding a possible lockdown. Who will be allowed to enter the buildings and who won’t? “The IT people at any rate, because they have to keep an eye on online education and research. But who else? Lab assistants?”
At the same time, the Covid-19 epidemic is part of CAPHRI’s research field, says Zeegers. “We have GPs in our ranks but also Area Health Authority researchers. You see new studies being set up here and there. I myself, together with the University Library, am collecting scientific articles about corona, in order to sift the wheat from chaff. There are all kinds of things being published at the moment, not subject to peer review, but the majority of that is probably rubbish.”
Zeegers is focusing on articles about risk factors and prognosis. “We know that old age is a risk factor, but what else? Comorbidity too, or underlying conditions? And if so, how strong is the evidence?”
SBE: “Our initial worry is for the young researchers with finite contracts”
Someone who focuses on economic theories will most likely not be affected by the corona crisis very much, just like the colleagues who find their research material in the databases of Statistics Netherlands or the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy analysis. Researchers who carry out experiments, will partially move to an online environment, says Wilko Letterie, responsible for research at the School of Business and Economics (SBE).
“In particular those who collect data through interviews, will encounter problems. That takes place at ROA and the Maastricht Sustainability Institute, for example. It is not an option at the moment to ask people questions face-to-face. The largescale surveys, which are partly done through the Internet anyway, can take place. One study has been cancelled, because it had to do with the European football championship.”
SBE is now investigating how many researchers find themselves stuck. “Our initial worry is for the young researchers with a finite contract: the PhD students and the tenure trackers. A number of them will incur a delay.”
At the same time, an inventory will be made of the projects (with their deadlines) that are in the danger zone and are financed by Brussels, NWO or the business community. “Some parts will not be completed on time, but some financiers have already informed us that they will be flexible, also with regard to deadlines for new applications. Nevertheless, we must take into consideration that there will be a dip in the output in the long term.”
Most researchers are now at home, says Letterie. “Researchers can run analyses through a virtual private network connection and make good use of their time. Although I do think that many are busy providing education. This has priority at the moment, because everything is going online.”