Woman working at home having a video conference with colleagues
As labs start to reopen and cancer scientists go back to their life-saving research, we take stock of how the cancer research community has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a survey, we asked cancer researchers about their experiences during the lockdown phase of the pandemic, as well as their expectations for the future of the field.
Home working became the norm for lab-based researchers – and projects stalled as a result
Our survey was open between 27 April and 22 May 2020. We put out a call for responses from the cancer research community through our social media channels, our monthly newsletter and through our network of Centres and Institutes, and received 185 responses. Eighty-eight per cent of the responses (162 respondents) were from Cancer Research UK (CRUK)-funded researchers and 12% (23 respondents) were from cancer researchers who don’t receive funding from us at present.
The vast majority (80%,148 respondents) were working from home at the time they completed the survey. Of this group, 85% (126 respondents) had been based in a research lab and 6% (9 respondents) had been working in a clinical setting prior to the pandemic. The other 9% (13 respondents) were in offices or other working environments.
Twelve per cent (22 respondents) were able to continue laboratory, translational or clinical research on cancer, and a further 4% (8 respondents) began researching COVID-19 in tandem with their cancer research work.
With lab closures calling a halt to their cancer research activity, some researchers, who might otherwise have been forced to work from home, were granted essential worker status to participate in the national pandemic effort. Eight per cent (15 respondents) made a temporary switch to focus their lab work entirely on the novel coronavirus, while a further 6% (11 respondents) began to work testing and treating COVID-19 patients.
Many lab-based researchers’ projects were stopped abruptly by lab closures.
- “I’m only 6 months into this project and was successfully optimising tools for my research. Due to COVID-19, the lab shut down, which has stopped all my research. Although all my cells and other materials are frozen and can be recovered when I start back, this will delay the whole project.”
- “I am currently unable to do any lab work and I am concerned that this will set my research back months at a critical stage in my career.”
Clinicians continued to care for patients with cancer where they could, and some researchers returned to frontline clinical work
Before the pandemic, 10% (19 respondents) had been caring for people with cancer in a clinical environment. When lockdown began, half continued to be clinic-based, while the others started working from home. Some researchers told us how they have cared for people affected by cancer during the pandemic.
- “My PhD has been put on hold so that I can support my colleagues and care for patients with cancer during the pandemic.”
- “I am a clinician who has returned to frontline clinical work. I have been involved in restructuring cancer care for melanoma, while providing acute surgical care for COVID and non-COVID patients.”
For some, home working created an opportunity to reflect and plan their research
With no access to the lab, researchers channelled their energy into writing papers, planning experiments, analysing data and getting on top of the research literature. Half of the respondents (92) said they were participating in online scientific events, which suggests that scientific discourse and collaboration were alive and well despite the lockdown.
Several respondents welcomed this change in pace and the opportunity to explore other people’s research or drill into their own data in greater depth.
- “This working from home time prompted me to slow down, look back at the results and the research project, to strengthen my knowledge and my working plan. Often, we forget how important it is to keep up-to-date with the studies conducted by the scientific community all around, because of being too focused on our own scientific question.”
- “We have been more productive than I initially hoped. We have dug into published data sets and are doing research in new ways using existing data, making links with gene signatures for example.”
For others, balancing work and caring responsibilities has been a challenge
Many respondents, however, had to balance their research activity with schooling and caring for children and other family members: 19% (35 respondents) highlighted caring responsibilities, such as childcare and home-schooling, as challenges to their research work. .
- “Trying to juggle my caring and working responsibilities has definitely been the most challenging aspect of the pandemic for me. I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old, so it is difficult to entertain them and keep them safe while trying to work.”
- “Managing home schooling and childcare at the same time as working from home have been challenging. I am forced to catch up in the evenings and I essentially do double shifts 5 days a week.”
Many researchers are anxious about the impact of COVID-19 on research careers
When asked ‘What are your biggest fears for the future of cancer research?’, 65% (120 respondents) highlighted research funding among their concerns. Some were worried about the future of projects cancelled or delayed by the lockdown. Respondents in contract roles, such as postdocs, or those nearing the end of their PhD were particularly anxious about their prospects.
“As an early-career researcher working actively in the lab on a number of projects that will define the rest of my career, my work has been hugely impacted by COVID-19. I am unable to progress these projects any further until I can get back in the lab – and as a shielded person I am extremely worried at how far away that may be.”
“I am deeply concerned about the future of scientific funding. I am an early-career researcher, I’ve been a postdoc for 4.5 years and I’m worried about my future prospects of getting grant funding to remain in cancer research.”
When sharing their fears for the future in response to this question, 12% (22 respondents) expressed concerns about the fate of cancer research careers in the wake of the pandemic.
- “[My biggest fear for the future of cancer research is] that a whole generation of trainees and early-career researchers will be lost, due to not meeting standards set pre-COVID-19 and a poverty of opportunity during/after COVID-19.”
With such worries about the future, 3% (6 respondents) explicitly acknowledged that the pandemic is affecting researchers’ mental health and wellbeing – and a general tone of stress was evident in many responses.
- “As time goes on new challenges emerge, but the toll on individuals’ wellbeing is clear.”
- “The most challenging aspect is probably to stay with a safe mind. Being anxious and stressed about the future is more prominent now.”
Researchers value community support, now and as they look to the future
Despite their concerns about the future, over 90% (171 respondents) reported feeling connected to their team, colleagues and collaborators during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 41% (76 respondents) feeling very connected.
Technology has enabled effective communication and collaboration.
“Our institute and CRUK have been very good at keeping us informed and engaged, and our IT support has been fantastic in enabling Microsoft Teams to work so quickly.”
“We are working well using Microsoft Teams to have video meetings, and to write to each other. Also, of course, using email.”
Several respondents celebrated the camaraderie and resilience of the research community during this challenging period.
- “I have appreciated how the research and clinical community have come together at these times, including funders, journals, etc.”
- “The current situation forces you to depend on other clinical colleagues for support and strengthens bonds and team working.”
- “The determination of researchers and clinicians not to let cancer patients bear the brunt of the pandemic is truly inspiring.”
“We hear our research community’s concerns for the future, and we recognise the impact this is having on their wellbeing,” says Karen Noble, our Head of Research Careers. “We’re developing practical ways to support our researchers, like producing guidelines for clinical academics who will be returning to research, and exploring how we take the impact of the pandemic into consideration during assessment.”
“We don’t want to lose a generation of researchers,” adds Ian Walker, our Director of Research. “As labs reopen, we will do what we can to help them get back to research, and back to beating cancer. Their work is vital to saving lives.”
This survey is a snapshot of researchers’ experiences and is not necessarily representative of the community of over 4,000 researchers and clinicians we fund. We believe clinical researchers could be under-represented in the survey sample.
Some quotes from the survey were lightly edited for length and readability.