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‘Normality should be something we make together’

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Online academia is here to stay—researchers must work to shape it, says Robert Braun

On 13 April, the first Horizon Europe funding calls opened for research into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research commissioner Mariya Gabriel described their aim as to use “combined strength to be prepared for the future”. 

However, the calls focus on medical efforts only. The omission of social sciences is strange, especially when one of the most disruptive social impacts of the pandemic has fallen on research and universities themselves. 

Use of online technologies was rising in universities and research before 2020. But Covid-19, distancing and lock-down measures triggered a step-change of a size and rapidity no one could have anticipated.

A year on, most of us are looking forward to getting back to in-person work and social lives. But some changes will be permanent. 

Before rushing into the new academic normal, researchers should reflect on what normal should look like. Funding social scientists to work on the implications of doing research and studying online should be top of policymakers’ agendas.

Online life has upsides: virtual meetings are more environmentally friendly and may be more accessible to those with caring responsibilities or on tighter budgets. Teaching, in some cases, has become more interactive and student led.

But there are downsides. Corporations are eager to push their technology and tie users into their platforms. Institutions are keen to save money, and possibly to monitor staff and students.

Technology can reduce some inequalities but exacerbate others. The person running an online meeting, for example, has more power over the discussion than the chair of a physical meeting. The condition triggered by relentless eye contact and seeing oneself has entered our vocabulary as Zoom fatigue.

The shift to digital is the worst thing to happen to gender equality and decolonisation in academia for a decade. Women experience more interruptions and verbal aggression than men in virtual meetings, while many women and people of colour feel ignored and find it difficult to speak up in such settings. 

Online meetings leave less room for networking, small talk and serendipity—the informal settings where much academic activity happens. Students drop out as they are confined to their living quarters, unable to share ideas or have fun with each other.

Increasing use of online tools has its own implications for research. Social scientists will be pushed away from participatory and ethnographic methods, and from collaborative projects on real-world problems and settings, and towards machine-analysable data and mathematical models. 

Corporations that own digital platforms will be able to shape research agendas and control access to data. So-called smart solutions may trigger uncritical use of data and methods. Europe’s approach to digital sovereignty, use of platforms, application of standards and ownership of data—an emerging policy priority—will shape the landscape.

Some problems may have simple, local solutions. My group, for example, often sets aside time at the end of meetings to discuss how they went. User-experience designers are busy developing features such as full-colour hands-up signalling, quick online questionnaires and white-board tools. 

But some problems will need to be addressed through initiatives in research policy and funding. 

Until now, studying and adjusting to these changes has been like trying to repair the ship in the middle of the storm. Now is the time to reflect on their meaning and impact responsibly. 

Recent years have seen a push for researchers in natural sciences and technology to work more with colleagues in the social sciences and humanities, to address complex challenges and ‘wicked problems’, shaped by values, trade-offs and issues of power and inequality. The pandemic and the shifts coming in its wake, both in and through research, are a perfect example. 

Pan-European and national funding agencies should be supporting research into what the move online means for higher education, research institutions, public administration decision-making and research funding. We need the data and analysis to understand the ways in which online tools shape research processes and alter how knowledge is produced, used and disseminated.

Such studies are vital, but they will also take several years, by which time some aspects of the shift to digital may be irreversible. Academics also need to be active now in shaping their post-pandemic world in collaboration with wider society. Normality should be something we make together, not something done to us. 

Robert Braun is deputy head of the group studying science, technology and social transformation at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

Research Professional News’s Path From the Pandemic initiative aims to promote discussion and debate on six critical topics where momentum is building for long-term change in the research sector in the wake of Covid-19. 

These are: Financial sustainability; A fairer sector; Online opportunities; International partnerships; Open research; Trust in science.

Through our initiative we hope to help the sector explore how to recover and rebuild in a way that is sustainable and fair. Get in touch with our news team if you’d like to contribute or have your say on Twitter #PathFromThePandemic.

This article also appeared in Research Europe