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Infrastructures eye Covid-19 boost

Image: XFEL

Pandemic has unlocked funding, raised profiles and modernised working conditions

Research infrastructures have been severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, but they may soon find themselves in a better position than before.

According to a survey released on 6 May, 18 of 28 major European infrastructures had paused operations because of the pandemic, with the remainder working with a skeleton crew, switching to remote working or allowing access only to those working on Covid-19 itself.

“We are focusing on how to introduce remote services wherever possible,” said Jana Kolar, one of the authors of the report and executive director of the Central European Research Infrastructure Consortium, a network of research facilities.

Such services include videoconferencing, online access to data analysis tools and using remotely controlled robots to interact with instruments. They are currently limited to a few beamlines at particle accelerators, but Kolar said the tools to expand them were already available.

“This can be seen as an opportunity, because it will stay even after the crisis,” she said. “By modernising our instrumentation, we will reduce the carbon footprint of our facilities—and we absolutely need to do that.”

At a virtual conference hosted by the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures and the Croatian presidency of the European Council on 15 May, Jean-Eric Paquet, the European Commission’s top R&D official, also suggested the crisis could be an opportunity. “Economists say we should bounce back; I think we should bounce forward,” he said.

The Council provided an opportunity for infrastructures in April when it decided that all remaining 2020 EU regional funding—up to €60 billion—could be used to tackle Covid-19.

At the conference, Jure Gašparič, Slovenia’s state secretary for science, said his government was looking at investing in a nuclear magnetic resonance machine to use for Covid-19 research, which could be eligible for EU funding under the updated rules.

Kolar, whose network includes Slovenian facilities, was optimistic. “I can’t say what will happen with re-budgeting at the end of the year, but the situation looks OK for now,” she said.

Another reason for researchers to be less downhearted than most about a likely recession is the vital role science has played in mitigating Covid-19. 

Cern, Europe’s nuclear research organisation, which is funded by 23 member states, is midway through upgrading its main particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, at a cost of over €900 million. Cern “hopes science will continue to have an important place in a post-Covid world,” a spokeswoman said, adding that an updated financial plan was being drawn up for consideration in June.

This article also appeared in Research Europe and a version also appeared in Research Fortnight