We have to accept that we can’t catch up on time lost in lockdown

An illustration showing three scientists

Source: © M-H Jeeves

It was a joy to see familiar faces on returning to the lab after lockdown - if you could recognise them under all the extra hair

At lunch on 17 March 2020, a departmental email appeared in my inbox with immediate instructions for all researchers and staff. ‘Stop teaching, safely quench reactions and collect your belongings. The building will close at 5pm for the foreseeable future.’ I stood with friends and colleagues at the end of the day and offered strange goodbyes. The UK entered a national lockdown one week later.

The subsequent months were extremely difficult for everyone on many different levels. From a practical perspective, there is only so much working from home a synthetic chemist can do. In July, new regulations allowed our research group to divide and alternate on a strict ‘bubble’ rota that maintained 50% lab occupancy. This was to ensure that we could all operate in a safe working environment. For the next nine months, we met on Zoom and did the best we could with screensharing and capricious internet connections. Finally, in April 2021, after approval from our health and safety department, we were allowed to ‘pop’ the bubbles and mix once again.

It was like the first day of school after a summer holiday. There was so much to catch up on, even the joy of trivial conversations in the office (socially distanced, of course). Seeing old friends in three dimensions was the most cathartic release in months. Pre-2020, I spent so long with colleagues at work that they became more like family. On that first morning, each familiar face I saw (admittedly with a lot more ‘lockdown hair’) was a step closer to a nostalgic feeling of normality.

This past year has been like sculpting with one hand tied behind your back

Our research group is built upon teamwork. Projects tend to be marble monoliths that are carved into shape by multiple researchers over many years. The prized sculpture at the end is a product of the team’s hard work, but the team is also a product of the sculpture. Strong bonds are forged through the tough times and the rewards are celebrated together. Frustratingly, this past year has been like sculpting with one hand tied behind your back. Research needs collaboration, communication and even coffee breaks to chat about problems and make progress.

With this missing pillar of research in mind, one can estimate how much lab time had been lost. In a normal year, we would spend around 240 working days in front of the fume cupboard. With a three-month total lockdown, half-time working after that, and accounting for bonus lockdowns and precautionary isolations, last year we were in the lab for just 90 days.

As restrictions are lifting in the UK, it’s understandable that researchers are trying to claw back as much lab time as possible. From academics, desperate to publish papers for fellowship applications, to final-year PhD students who are trying to write their thesis (speaking from uncomfortable experience), there is a substantial body of work missing from everyone’s career. With deadlines fast approaching, stress and anxiety accumulates. Whether from external funding bodies, demanding supervisors or internal expectations, there exists an overwhelming pressure to disregard the global pandemic and make haste on pre-Covid deadlines and commitments, as if nothing ever happened.

Fortunately, leading faculty members at our university have been outspoken, understanding and supportive on this matter. The overwhelming consensus has been to let it go. You can never catch up on such a significant loss of time. This has been critical to our mental and physical wellbeing as we return to work full-time.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares this opinion. Discussions of weekend rotas and graveyard shifts are on the cards, if not already in place, to chase results forever out of reach. The best-case scenario that can result from these are overworking and burnout, a problem already far too common in modern research. The worst-case scenario will be those same, overworked people taking risks in unsupervised environments and having accidents.

We have to push the reset button and accept the loss, collectively. A release of pressure from the top of the research pyramid has tremendous impacts lower down. Funding bodies have to understand the extenuating circumstances that have delayed everyone’s projects and provide research extensions. With more time and support, supervisors can then culture a healthier environment for both themselves and for their students to thrive and achieve excellent results in due course.

In the meantime, work smarter, not harder. Do the best with what you have and take each day as it comes. Try to talk to those around you and share your anxiety. Finally, take some time to reflect and plan for the next chapter. Press your own reset button.