Science Magazine today came out with a news story about researchers having to shut down their labs because of COVID-19-related restrictions. It focused on situations where a disruption will destroy decades of continuous work. In most of those, the scientist will throw in the towel and decide to do something else. Yes, the esteemed journal is correct, in many cases, the knowledge that could have been gleaned will remain unknown for additional decades, and some of these losses represent missed opportunities to help the broader society.
However, those interviewed were all heads of labs, often large labs. Unaddressed were the disruptions to the lives of those lower on the hierarchy.
Science, at least in the US, runs on the borderline of the possible—not because of the intrinsic difficulties of scientific discovery, but because of the way science is funded. I am certain there are thousands of graduate students who will not finish graduate school because the abandoned experiments stretched the time needed to complete a Ph.D. worth of work beyond the interval for which they have funding. Even the best graduate fellowships last only five years. Mine lasted three; a training grant to the department picked me up for the rest of my Ph.D. That training grant only allowed three years of support for an individual student, and only the best places had training grants. The other 98% of graduate students in this country who don't have an independent fellowship in the first place must be picked up by their professor's grants.
And what of the grants? I was pushed out of science by a rejection letter that said even though outstanding progress was made and all deliverables were met and exceeded, there was no funding available to continue any grants in the program that had funded me. And by another letter from a program that rated my grant the best submitted (of all such grants in the country) whose funding was pulled unexpectedly because the political winds shifted in DC. And by many other such letters. And that was with the data that should have made the next steps fundable in a rational world. One less experiment completed on any of those, and they wouldn't have even been worth submitting.
I'll bet there are thousands of professors for whom the one last experiment that didn't happen due to COVID-19 will mean that their grant application won't get funded. That means many graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and research scientists will now be out of a job, with no way to continue the work to which they have devoted many years of their lives.
So, they will look to industry for employment. They will find the start-ups aren't hiring. Many of them exist on venture capital or angel investor funding, and a several-month delay in research often means that funding is pulled. The company goes bankrupt; every employee is fired.
Big companies tend to retrench in bad times, pull internal research funding, cease hiring, and start the firings or go into we-have-a-job-for-you-if-you'll-move-to-Indiana mode. Moreover, even in good times, that's only an option for some displaced young scientists, the ones who can be a widget. If their experience is exactly what the company wants right then and there, and the company feels these individuals can move into "R&D with a big D and a little R" (actual language used by a company where I knew folks), then they might get a job. Still, they should be prepared to be fired within six months when their skills are no longer necessary. In San Francisco, copacetic, as long as they've been networking. In other parts of the country, they may end up doing manual labor.
And what of those even younger? Those whose senior year of college has moved online will not be going to job recruitment fairs, will not be able to finish that senior research project that will wow their sponsor into working contacts on their behalf, and will have to wait around an entire year if they want to give up on getting their first job and go to graduate school, instead. The deadlines have already passed. Look at the Millennials who graduated during the real estate-corruption-induced economic meltdown of 2008. Many couldn't find a job or were underemployed. Twelve years later, huge numbers are indebted, unable to buy a house, and living paycheck-to-paycheck if they are employed at all.
Langston Hughes asked, "Whatever happens to a dream deferred," but what about a dream destroyed? Some will fester; some will explode; but more are merely abandoned as smart people move on to something else, often something lesser than what they had anticipated. And, sometimes, the world will never replace their creativity. Every once in a while, I do a Google Scholar search on my old papers. They are still getting cited, largely because the follow-up experiments that got put in my rejected grants were never followed up by anyone. Funding has gotten worse and worse and more and more narrowly channeled since I dropped out of the science world in 2007. In my last position, one of the achievements I almost pulled off—a test-strip for the toxins made by toxic algae of local significance where I'd done all the wet chemistry and my surface chemist collaborators were ready to begin attaching biochemicals to paper strips when the funding got pulled—is now getting tens of millions thrown at it by the state government. Florida had, in the meantime, closed all the local testing labs, so what had been a six-week process (rather than near-instantaneous, as we'd envisioned) is now a three-month wait for samples sent to California to return results. Science does move forward if it affects the fortunes or living standards of rich folks who live on the water and own politicians. Even then, it moves slowly.
Sure, people are dying due to COVID-19. Others are going to be hungry or homeless. Any rational person would realize the suffering of scientists pales in comparison.
But having your dreams wrecked by forces outside of your control hurts. These folks are in pain right now. Before you comment sarcastically on their social media posts, friends, please take a breath and reconsider. The scientist written up in Science Magazine heading into work to kill her animals probably needs a hug that she won't get due to COVID-19.
She doesn't need nastiness and spite.
As we isolate into our social distancing pods, I'd urge kindness. Anything nice you can say today to anyone in pain will be appreciated. If all you have are words, use them thoughtfully.
And if you are in this boat, it's okay to shed a few tears. The elderly folks condemned to death in Italy because of a lack of respirators won't suddenly be saved if you deny what you are feeling. You aren't selfish.
Tag me if your post needs a sad-face or a love emoji.