Shutting down the Powerhouse

Shutting down the Powerhouse

How closure of research laboratories/ institutions is a loss to the scientific world

The global spread of Coronavirus represents a major rupture. Apart from breaking down vital sectors of economy and healthcare, it forced closure of academic and research institutions across the world in efforts to stop the spread of contagion.
However, after a gap of almost two years, these sectors seem to have found a new lease of life, albeit still fragile. Still under the pump is the higher education sector, however, particularly researcher laboratories and institutions in India and other developing countries of Asia.
Research is the backbone of a country. It seeks to find the solutions to known and unknown problems. A country will never progress if its research and innovations centres are closed for long periods. In other developed or developing countries the research laboratories or institutions remained initially closed for some period but they were allowed later on to start their activities.
I spoke to some of my colleagues across the world on this matter. Dr. Paul Frendsen, Professor at Brigham Young University, Utah, USA, said, “We closed down for a bit, but we’re open most of the time (albeit with limitations).” Similarly, another colleague Prof Halil Ibrahimi at the University of Pristina, Kosovo, remarked, “We remained closed during the first months and then opened.” Prof. Pongsak Laudee, of Prince of Songkla University, Thailand, said, “We open the labs for graduate students with proper COVID-19 advisories for students and faculty members.” This clearly shows that other countries did not let research labs or their academic institutions suffer as they remained initially closed but were made functional most of the year.
In India, on the contrary, research laboratories in universities and other institutes have suffered a huge setback. All day-to-day experimental activities have come to a grinding halt. A crisis is underway which has left the scientific community anguished over their now moribund experiments on key scientific problems and advancements that they had devoted months and even years of time to. Many are struggling with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about how they will continue their work for the research grants, provided by different funding agencies like UGC, SERB, DST, UGC, ICMR, DBT, ICSSR, which are getting lapsed.
Another major consequence of this unending lockdown of scientific labs is that early career researchers are at greater risk of losing their targets — vital contributions to the scientific world and personal milestones. In fact, the work of PhD students has suffered as they are unable to get their field and lab data well on time. If labs continue to remain shut, it will be difficult for early career researchers to make an impact in the scientific world. Personally, my PhD students have a huge setback on their field and lab collection data as they have to move to other states for collection of different insect specimens related to their research work and then have to analyse them in laboratory. Since all field and lab work remained halted during these two years, it has resulted in rise of frustration and unending anxiety among researchers.
Furthermore, there are least chances that researchers will be given any further extensions by funding agencies to complete objectives of a project. Host institutions, too, seem unwilling to provide a helping hand. In such a situation, we may lose the opportunity of R&D capacity building of our institutions.
It is high time that the central and state governments allow gradual opening of higher educational institutions, particularly the research laboratories, in line with COVID-19 protocols. Closing these institutions and labs in toto will be a huge loss to society. Researchers must continue their work so as to find solutions to a number of problems that need urgent attention and focus.
Imagine if laboratories had been closed down in the developed world, how would it be possible to develop a vaccine against Covid, or the more detailed information on virus structure and its antidotes treatments. The whole world owes it to the research laboratories and scientists whose tireless work in this direction is historical and phenomenal. May the government reopen higher educational institutions soon, so that our students and researchers do not suffer more academically as well as psychologically.

The writer is Assistant Professor at Department of Zoology, Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri. [email protected]

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