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Dutch research institutes adapt to coronavirus measures

Image: PhuShutter, via Shutterstock

Staff at KNAW centres are looking for ways to keep research ticking along

The 10 research institutes managed by the KNAW academy of sciences have had to shut down most of their on-site operations because of the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving researchers to find alternative ways of working.

The institutes took this step two weeks ago in order to impose strict social distancing and stop the spread of the virus. Researchers have had to resort to working from home, doing data analysis, authoring papers, giving and attending online lectures and planning projects.

Research Netherlands spoke to scientists at the centres to see how they were coping. At the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Wageningen, spring is a crucial time for researchers, when birds breed, plants sprout and insects emerge. Because of the coronavirus measures, much of the institute’s field research cannot take place. “This particularly affects young researchers who are very dependent on this season for their PhD,” said Froukje Rienks, head of PR and science communication at the institute.

Rienks described how long-term projects were also feeling the pressure. The institute runs the Dutch Bird Ringing Scheme, which has been going since 1911 and gathers vital data on the ecology and evolution of the country’s bird population.

“This enables us to assess the influence of emissions and climate change on nature,” Rienks said. “Missing data in 2020 would be a real pity. These would be irreplaceable.”

At the Hubrecht Institute for Developmental Biology and Stem Cell Research in Utrecht, staff are also staying at home. “We’re running in weekend mode. People are only allowed in the building to do the most necessary things,” said Jeroen den Hertog, managing director of the institute, which employs 400 people.

Hertog explained that scientists must continue to care for cell cultures in experiments that may run for six months or more. In addition, laboratory animals such as roundworms, fruit flies, frogs and rodents must be taken care of.

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience remains open, but only for scientists who are ensuring that long-term experiments continue and laboratory animals are fed. The rest of the approximately 300 staff are working from home.

According to Pieter Roelfsema, the institute’s director, the Netherlands Brain Bank, which manages organs donated to research, is continuing its work. “Autopsies are taking place at the VU Amsterdam medical centre and the processing and storage of brain tissue in the laboratory of the Brain Bank,” he told Research Netherlands.

The Covid-19 measures also affect social scientists, even though they are less likely to require laboratory space. At the Meertens Institute for research and documentation on Dutch language and culture, researchers have tried to grasp opportunities brought on by the virus.

“We decided to temporarily focus our research more on what the coronavirus crisis brings in terms of stories, fake news, jokes and rituals,” said Irene Stengs, a senior researcher at the institute. “For example, it is remarkable that new rituals, just like the epidemic, are spreading across national borders, such as encouraging healthcare personnel, remembering the dead and organising online church services.”

Stengs said that some of these rituals were likely to stick, which could provide additional opportunities for study. “We’ll take notes of them, link them to visual material in databases and categorise them.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe