Author: Kathleen Lentijo

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein

People thinking differently have always sparked change. Thinking differently can be a result of varied past experiences or unique present circumstances. Given the unique present situation with the novel coronavirus, one has to wonder at all the ways the pandemic will be a catalyst for change in our world.

For one, the impact on scientific research and development related to the health industry has greatly increased collaboration. COVID-19 has accelerated cooperation among researchers related to the virus and increased the speed at which this research community prioritizes publishing results related to COVID-19.  Artificial intelligence and big data analytics combined with health industry data are also rapidly helping us all better understand the spread and treatments of the coronavirus and is likewise accelerating innovation in that area. While in general these are seen as good developments, caution also needs to be taken, since this acceleration may lead to less rigorous oversight. Innovations in the private manufacturing sector are also being seen on how to nimbly convert automobile and other industrial factories for facemask and ventilator production.

But what about the rest of the research community? A year without conferences, seminars, and lab closures seems like a dire prescription for R&D efficiency. And I would agree that this is going to be rough for research in terms of education, meeting targets, and productivity. Though I’m not sure about innovation altogether. The human brain is amazing, and it’s often in the quiet times, in the flow, that it enables us to make connections, to generate original ideas. There is plenty of fodder for inspiration and an abundance of published research online that warrants deeper dives to stimulate creative thinking when we can’t as easily bounce ideas off our colleagues.  

Additionally, around the world, research universities, labs, and companies are developing action plans and brainstorming how to be productive in the non-lab and no-testing environment. This effort will drive innovation in collaborative tools, where interactions need to be more flexible and as pointed out in a recent Nature piece, might make future conferences more digital — a change that is needed to provide better accessibility and to possibly drive development in less affluent countries.

Since getting into the lab is not an option for many researchers, digital simulation tools, data analysis, and literature review are always possible areas for continued progress.  Now might also be an opportune time to think about where your research is going and why, instead of just getting to the next milestone. Research and targets can change, so re-evaluating objectives and requirements may also prove critical to success. Here are a few example questions to consider:

  • What does the horizon look like in the field in which your new technology will prosper?
  • What dependencies make this research highly valuable and demand its development in tandem? 
  • What makes this research less valuable and what is the likelihood of that outcome? 
  • How will this technology help humanity or drive economic growth 5, 10, or 30 years from now?

If you’re having a difficult time thinking through these questions, or even concentrating in general, maybe take some time outside, away from your computer, and find a nice tree to sit under (alone) for a while and let yourself ponder.  After all, they say Newton discovered gravity during the Great Plague.