Understanding better the impact of COVID-19 on the research enterprise

Springer Nature Group
By: Steven Inchcoombe, Thu Aug 6 2020

Springer Nature is commissioning research to better understand the challenges faced by universities and researchers worldwide and build an evidence base we hope will be helpful to the higher education and research communities

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed many victims.  First and foremost, the hundreds and thousands of people who have sadly lost their lives and the millions of people who have contracted the virus, many of whom will suffer  long term side effects.  Millions have also experienced significant financial harm, be that from loss of business trade, income, or employment.   The World Bank, in its June 2020 Global Economic outlook, envisions a 5.2% contraction in global GDP which would translate into the deepest global recession in decades, despite, as it acknowledges “the extraordinary efforts of governments to counter the downturn with fiscal and monetary policy support”. They go on to comment that “Over the longer horizon, the deep recessions triggered by the pandemic are expected to leave lasting scars through lower investment, an erosion of human capital through lost work and schooling, and fragmentation of global trade and supply linkages.”

The research community has not been immune to this economic crisis even if it has not experienced the same level of financial hardship as other sectors. However, article after article, news report after news report, in and by the higher education press and mainstream media, point to the expected long term impact many are predicting COVID-19 will have on our universities and other higher education establishments. 

Not only that, but this comes at a time when the sector has had to adapt at speed to new ways of working all while what the research enterprise does - drive new discovery and understanding to aid society - has never been more critical. The race to understand and combat the coronavirus has led to a boom of research output and global collaboration on a scale we have rarely if ever have seen before. 

It is of great importance to us that we do all we can to assist this united charge by not only helping researchers and librarians continue with business as usual during the coronavirus lockdown but also ensure that academics and governments have access to relevant research to help fight the global pandemic. For example, our COVID-19 resource centre provides researchers access to over 19,000 coronavirus-related articles and book chapters free of charge, and which were downloaded more than 62 million times between March and July.  We also continue to carry out a range of measures to help higher education institutions provide seamless access to content, including creating a dedicated federated access page to assist library partners and changing our systems to allow users to remain logged in for 90 days after their initial authentication. This support will remain for as long as it is needed.   

While we are proud of what we have been able to achieve and deliver for our customers and users in this regard during this unprecedented time, we are acutely aware that this only partly helps them meet the challenges they are currently facing let alone future hardships on the horizon.  

It is essential that while we continue to think on ‘what can we do right now to help,’ we begin to focus on ‘how can we help going forward’ with a long term view of the new challenges that the research community will face.

However, beyond a general collective understanding that university budgets are likely to be significantly affected, particularly in those countries like the US and the UK where institutions are highly reliant on student fees for their income, it is unclear what the impact of reduced budgets will be on the research enterprise. Most of the analysis to date has focused on the instructional function of higher education, as institutions grapple with delivery models and in some cases residential implications. 

This is important because the adverse financial impact of the COVID-19 crisis could undermine the research funding streams of universities worldwide, and as such their ability to support the research activities in their institutions, the researchers they employ, and the research information infrastructure itself (e.g. academic libraries) and ongoing improvements to ensure a healthy research culture.

While medical research will likely continue apace, other disciplines are likely to be adversely affected. This would have a negative impact on societies and economies at large, at a moment when research has never been more vital.

Springer Nature would like to raise awareness of the challenges faced by universities and researchers worldwide, and shine a light on the need for action to prevent or limit any further negative impact. 

Over the summer we will be working with a number of experts in the field to analyse the current landscape and  build an evidence base we hope will be helpful to the higher education and research communities. We aim to provide research funders and university leaders the evidence they need to prevent unintended consequences through their own actions and make the case to their national governments and funding agencies to guarantee  continued support for the research enterprise throughout the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. 

Steven Inchcoombe

Author: Steven Inchcoombe

Chief Publishing Officer and Solutions Officer, Springer Nature

Steven Inchcoombe read Physics at Merton College, Oxford and qualified as a chartered accountant with PwC. From 1990 to 2000, Steven was at Interactive Data Corporation, where he ultimately became responsible for strategy, M&A and the EMEA region, and during this period the business became listed on NASDAQ. He then moved on to Board positions with the Financial Times Group, including UK Publisher of the Financial Times and Managing Director of ft.com.

Steven joined the Macmillan Board in 2006. From 2007 to 2013, he led the Nature Publishing Group (NPG), and in 2013 became CEO of Macmillan’s Science and Scholarly division, comprising NPG, Scientific American and Palgrave Macmillan. Following the creation of Springer Nature in May 2015 he was appointed Managing Director of its Nature Research Group and most recently promoted to Chief Publishing Officer for Springer Nature in March 2016.