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Adam is the lead optical navigation engineer on NASA’s first asteroid-sampling spacecraft, OSIRIS-REx . In 2016, it blasted off to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu, scheduled to return in 2023 laden with asteroid pebbles and dust. Scientists want to study the material to understand how, when, and why the solar system formed. A first “touch-and-go” (TAG) rehearsal of the ship’s asteroid-sampling procedure (approach the asteroid, get within 65 meters, back away to safety) would normally warrant a gathering of its team at Lockheed Martin mission support in Littleton, Colorado. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, NASA, like a lot of scientific groups, had to try a new experiment: mission control from home.
As she worked in the borrowed-office-turned-command-center, Adam wore black yoga pants and an OSIRIS-REx T-shirt adorned with the mission’s unofficial mascot, a penguin in a dinosaur costume. She sipped from a steaming mug of her favorite chamomile tea and pulled up several windows on her laptop, one showing real-time flight simulator imagery of the spacecraft and the asteroid, and a raw feed of data “bread crumbs,” the craft’s version of text messages, reporting its operations and whereabouts. A handful of NASA employees were at the Lockheed Martin mission support area in Colorado, wearing masks and practicing social distancing; the rest were telecommuting. Adam picked up her phone and dialed into the mission’s dedicated line. “Here we go,” she said.
Across the US, scientists who normally do their work in highly-specialized and well-equipped environments like laboratories and command centers are adapting to continue their work from home. But that doesn’t mean they’re able to get everything done. A report called “Moving Academic Research Forward During COVID-19,” published in the journal Science in late May by researchers from the University of Michigan, Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Washington, Johns Hopkins, and MIT, found that over 80 percent of all on-site research at their institutions had been shut down. It predicted that financial losses will “hamstring [research] institutions financially for years to come.”“It might well be the biggest disruption to global research since World War II,” said Nick Wigginton, the assistant vice president of research at the University of Michigan and one of the paper’s authors. “It’s been devastating for so many researchers across every discipline.”
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“It may be years before academic research institutions reach a new normal,” the paper concludes. Funding losses due to the coronavirus could lead to reductions in the national and international scientific workforce. Important research and development work related to deadly diseases that aren’t Covid-19 has been slowed or paused. Young scientists’ career development and growth are at risk. And Covid-19 has “exacerbated multiple equity issues” in the academic research field.
But there have also been a few bright spots, the researchers wrote. Scientists have redirected their energy toward fighting the novel coronavirus and have shared their data; already over 13,000 papers have been written on the topic, and over 3,000 preprints related to Covid-19 research have been shared on open-access preprint sites like bioRxiv and medRxiv. In many cases, institutions moved more quickly than state and federal governments to shut down labs when outbreaks became apparent, hoping to protect scientists from infections. What science needs, the paper’s authors conclude, is a shift toward a more “resilient, nimble, and equitable research ecosystem.”