THE World University Rankings 2021: how Covid-19 is changing research

The novel coronavirus?has transformed how research is done in many disciplines. But scholars are divided over whether the?accelerated pace of science is an entirely good thing

September 2, 2020
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By the time Boris Johnson told the British public to stay in their homes on 23?March to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, the UCL Covid-19 Social Study had already signed up 18,000 adults to complete weekly surveys during lockdown. At the end of April, that figure had risen to 75,000, providing real-time insights into how Britons were coping with the biggest restrictions to national life since the Second World War.

“When we saw the pandemic coming, we mobilised our researchers to set this up,” says Daisy Fancourt, associate professor of psychobiology and epidemiology at UCL, explaining how the project arose so quickly. “People were also working evenings and weekends to keep it going.”

Establishing a major research project in a matter of weeks, rather than over months or years, would in more normal times be viewed as a significant achievement, worthy of a case study on how a research team can quickly shift focus to address a fast-moving health crisis.

But the new coronavirus has reset expectations. Indeed, thousands of scholars managed to create innovative projects to analyse the Covid-19 epidemic and a great deal of them were promptly funded; Fancourt’s rapid response now seems like the “new normal”, given that by the start of July almost 800 coronavirus-related projects had been funded by UK Research?and Innovation (UKRI) to the tune of £180?million.

The national body, which supports about £7?billion of research annually, part-funded Fancourt’s project, as did the Nuffield Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, which approved her emergency application for funding within eight weeks, she says.

Thousands of other valid projects missed out. The research council Innovate?UK’s call for projects to tackle coronavirus received 8,600 applications in six weeks alone, compared with 8,300 in the whole of the 2019-20 financial year, prompting the UK government to examine how research funding could be streamlined in future as it seeks to double national spending on research to £22?billion by 2025.

For Fancourt, however, coronavirus has changed more than just the pace at which science or its funding happens.

“There has been a different ethos in how we communicate with the public,” she explains. “The priority is usually about getting the results to other scientists and then thinking about doing a press release, but we’ve flipped that around,” she says, describing how a series of preprints (16 in total, so far) and weekly newsletters about the nation’s evolving mental health have disseminated the results to grass-roots mental health organisations to inform practice, which has also led to unprecedented levels of media coverage.

Surprisingly, the study’s results have shown that levels of anxiety were higher before lockdown than during it, says Fancourt, who believes that researchers’ enhanced understanding of social isolation in lockdown will be crucial when the next virus strikes.

“There will be more pandemics and lockdowns, so we must be better prepared for next time. But this work also gives us a chance to reframe how we address loneliness and isolation as a social issue more widely,” she adds.

Many have welcomed the extraordinary new pace of research in the face of Covid-19, and some hope it will continue when the pandemic is over. Others, however, have serious reservations.

In a Nature Human Behaviour article published in June, researchers from Canada, Denmark and Spain noted that the time between a scientific paper’s being received by a journal and its acceptance for publication had shrunk from 100 days before the pandemic to just six days if it concerned coronavirus – with some 367 Covid-19 articles being published every week in the PubMed database of life science and biomedical literature.

The “remarkable speed and rate of publication” of Covid-19 research raised “concerns about the quality of the evidence base and about the risk of misinformation being spread with harmful consequences”, states the paper, “Pandemic publishing poses a new Covid-19 challenge”. The study calls for new editorial standards for publishing in future public health emergencies and more training for peer reviewers when they are asked to do reviews in a short time frame.

The study’s lead author, Jeffrey Lazarus, associate research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, says that the explosion of Covid-19 papers has “placed a huge strain on the publishing world”.

“Journals have been getting many more submissions and often from authors that they are not familiar with,” explains Lazarus, who believes that the “incredible volume of submissions risked overwhelming the system”.

“This situation is not really sustainable if editors and reviewers continue in the same working conditions – it?is hard to deal with so many submissions if people are working from home and you don’t have easy access to your office or the stats expert to double-check some calculations,” he says.

Lazarus admits that the rapid review culture that has emerged during the pandemic may have some benefits. The embrace of preprints by scientists – which host about 5,000 of the 20,000 Covid-19 papers published so far, according to one estimate – could help to prevent duplication of effort or could provide new research opportunities, for instance.

But there is a downside to this rush to publication, he adds.

“It can be incredibly dangerous if an unreviewed paper on, say, a potential Covid-19 treatment appears on a preprint and is picked up by someone without the findings being properly reviewed,” he says.

“We’ve seen people hoarding malaria drugs because they might have some benefits [in treating Covid-19] without realising the risk of taking these drugs.”

Other questions remain about whether the coronavirus pandemic will benefit science in the long run, reflects Lazarus, who was previously the World Health Organisation’s expert in viral hepatitis.

“We have been trying to find out how many papers that leading journals might normally publish have been displaced by Covid-19 papers, and this question does concern me,” he says, adding that it might be difficult for non-coronavirus research projects to restart given the disruptions caused by the lockdown.

“If you are not in a team that can easily switch gears and your clinical trial is delayed for months, you might be wondering what you will be doing this autumn,” he says.


Coronavirus funding

Vaccine, treatment and diagnostic research has attracted the most research funding during the pandemic, with some $8?billion (£6.4?billion) pledged by the global community.

However, non-medical research has also attracted significant backing. In the US, emergency funding legislation released an additional $1.8?billion to the National Institutes of Health for Covid-19 activities. But the National Science Foundation, which does not fund any clinical research, also received $75?million to spend on studies that will help “prevent, prepare for, and respond to” the virus.

The European Commission has pledged a?total of €1.4?billion (£1.24?billion), including €675?million of Horizon 2020 funds, towards coronavirus research and development, with some €220?million directed at non-vaccine projects, which include population health studies, the use of robotics in healthcare and explorations of the mental health impact of lockdowns.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Research pillar

Rank in pillar

Position in World University Rankings

Institution

Country/region

Pillar score

1

1

University of Oxford

United Kingdom

99.6

2

6

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

99.2

3

3

Harvard University

United States

98.8

4

7

University of California, Berkeley

United States

97.2

5

4

California Institute of Technology

United States

96.9

6

2

Stanford University

United States

96.7

7

=20

Tsinghua University

China

94.9

8

5

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

94.4

9

8

Yale University

United States

93.8

10

9

Princeton University

United States

92.5

11

14

ETH Zurich

Switzerland

92.3

12

12

Johns Hopkins University

United States

91.8

13

23

Peking University

China

91.3

14

18

University of Toronto

Canada

90.9

15

25

National University of Singapore

Singapore

90.8

16

=36

The University of Tokyo

Japan

90.7

17

10

University of Chicago

United States

90.5

18

15

University of California, Los Angeles

United States

90.2

19

13

University of Pennsylvania

United States

89.9

20

16

UCL

United Kingdom

89.4

21

11

Imperial College London

United Kingdom

88.2

22

22

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

United States

86.9

23

19

Cornell University

United States

86.7

24

24

Northwestern University

United States

83.6

25

17

Columbia University

United States

82.9

26

27

London School of Economics and Political Science

United Kingdom

82.5

27

28

Carnegie Mellon University

United States

81.3

28

26

New York University

United States

80.6

29

29

University of Washington

United States

80.5

=30

33

University of California, San Diego

United States

80.4

=30

=20

Duke University

United States

80.4

32

=54

Kyoto University

Japan

79.9

33

48

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

United States

79.1

34

32

LMU Munich

Germany

78.7

35

38

Georgia Institute of Technology

United States

76.8

36

31

University of Melbourne

Australia

76.3

37

34

University of British Columbia

Canada

75.1

38

44

University of Texas at Austin

United States

74.8

39

30

University of Edinburgh

United Kingdom

74.7

40

45

KU Leuven

Belgium

74.4

41

60

Seoul National University

South Korea

73.8

42

41

Technical University of Munich

Germany

73.6

43

40

McGill University

Canada

73.4

44

39

University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

73.3

45

46

Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris

France

73.0

46

35

King’s College London

United Kingdom

72.4

47

=36

Karolinska Institute

Sweden

72.2

48

47

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Singapore

71.9

49

=78

Delft University of Technology

Netherlands

71.6

50

49

University of Wisconsin-Madison

United States

71.4

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline:?Research at warp speed

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