How pandemic curtailed the physical freedom of researchers – Times of India


Rebooting of campuses after a gap of six months has its fair share of challenges. Starting out with PhD students, institutes will open its hostels to postgraduate students as well, albeit in phases. Though some are back at the campus, labs have limited time slots to avoid overcrowding and strict enforcement of social distancing norms. The academic losses make the road to recovery seem long.

Agrees Yogesh Simmhan, associate professor, Department of Computational and Data Sciences (CDS), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. “Physical freedom of researchers has got curtailed with the pandemic. The real problems may lie in the wet labs where the challenges are far more intense as heavy-duty equipment may have degenerated through disuse. In our data science and computational labs, it was less of a concern, since a server might go down every 2-3 weeks, and with people manning critical equipment away in their hometowns, it may take 2-3 days to get them in working condition.”

Purchase of research equipment is another area which took a beating. “With the slowdown of the worldwide logistics supply chain, it may take around three months to get the imported servers installed, and even their prices have shot up by 20-30%. “Though our equipment comes through government funding, the increased costs may hamper our research progress,” Simmhan adds.

He rues that preparation for online classes is time consuming and with semesters starting from October 1, research may have to take a backseat. The low student intake owing to the pandemic may have a bearing on the research outcomes, since his Institute may not have adequate students to continue existing research projects or start on new ones.

“The lockdown was a necessity, but the impact on the researchers who are at the final leg of the doctoral programme cannot be undermined as some of the experiments may have to be reinitiated,” says Virendra Tewari, director, IIT Kharagpur.

He adds, “While virtual laboratories in times of the lockdown have proven to be useful for a large section of students working on programming and modelling, such labs have limitations when it comes to generating and calibrating data using specific instruments. But the problem is unavoidable considering the life risk involved. Hence, we encouraged the students to opt for scientific literature-based studies that otherwise takes a backseat while students are busy running experiments. It will help them to upskill, so that when they come back to the campus, as we are planning for their return, especially the research scholars at an advanced stage of their PhD will be equipped better to conduct the experiments.”

Simmhan believes that virtual labs are “a step down from physical labs” and while they can be used by many researchers at the same time, it is a useful tool for teaching students at high school and UG level and can never be a solution for advanced research programmes even during the pandemic. “Students suffer motivation loss when they are working remotely and tend to get lethargic in their home environment. Brainstorming spurs blue sky thinking and much of research evolves through corridor chats and walking through labs and adhoc discussions with fellow researchers, which is clearly not the case even as campuses reopen.”

As institutes attempt to ensure minimal or zero damage post the pandemic, it is important for them to take a high resilient approach and hope to sail through the crisis with minimum losses.





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