Well, it’s certainly been a year. Looking back at the last 12 months, it seems unfathomable that anything close to normality could persist, and yet despite lockdowns, a global pandemic, massive curtailing of international travel, and a massive shift in how we work, we try to carry on. Which may not have been the best solution, to be honest. It’s a bit of square peg/round hole. And that is likely to be the source of many of the challenges.
In the early days of lockdown in the UK in March, the message was “be patient, be kind”. But as the months went on, the restless wheels of capitalism started straining and the messaging quickly returned to “Business as Usual”. Even through the summer, there was an expectation from some quarters of pre-pandemic levels of engagement and not a lot of flexibility. Rather than pressing pause on things to let folks get to grips with the global paradigm shift (in the true Kuhnian sense) of how we work as scientists, the emphasis became “get back to normal” when everything about it was far from normal.
For me, had three primary effects. First, I had a mental breakdown in July. Like, properly. Thankfully I have a supportive husband who recognized the signs, and a responsive GP who was able to start me on a treatment regimen. I’ve also benefited from cognitive behavioural therapy. Five months in, and though I wouldn’t say “I’m better”, I certainly feel a bit more resilient. I recently asked on twitter (https://twitter.com/TheLabAndField/status/1333142805640859648) when the last time was when folks felt “well”, and more than 7/10 responded that it had been sometime before 2020 (with ¼ before 2015). We often talk about cumulative pressures on ecosystems and how one additional threat (be it climate change, an invasive species, or pollution for example) can push species over the edge. Many of us know how they feel, and the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how precariously some of us were hanging on.
Add on top of this the summer where “Black Lives Matter” gained more prominence (rightly so), and a year where transphobia reared its ugly head with abandon in the UK (and organizations’ responses to these), and it’s been a particularly tough time for many. We’re all very tired.
Second, science took a MAJOR hiatus. Between May and September, I think I managed about 1 or 2 days of research, which was dedicated to supporting students or collaborators. I’ve had a manuscript come back in January 2020 with “major revisions” that I haven’t even found time to dig into. And that should be OK. But what I think will be particularly challenging is how this year will be evaluated (which is a broader problem in science). Thanks to a network of collaborators and students, and a large backlog of work that happened in December 2019, I’ll probably come out of the year in not too bad a shape in terms of publications. But I’m very lucky. What about the early career postdoc, or the PhD student, or the researcher with caring responsibilities? Just like our desire to “be patient, be kind” fizzled out over the summer, the legacy of remembering that anyone for whom 2020 (and likely 2021) will be used to evaluate for a job, a scholarship, a grant, or a promotion will, I fear, be a fading memory, especially by those who were able to buffer the year more than others.
Which brings me to the third point: compassion for people should be (but isn’t always) paramount. I’ve always sad that good science happens because of good people, but lately I’ve found that it (and many other thing) happens in spite of those for whom compassion and understanding is not in the fore of their mind. Increasingly, process and finance dominate. As an example, I was discussing with a colleague about a potential future event which involved groups of people indoors, which they were adamant happen “before the end of the fiscal year” in March. I was utterly flabbergasted, but equally not surprised in the least. In a year when so many of us have felt so besieged, so beaten down, so mentally drained, and unable to embrace, compassion and inclusion should be driving our conversations. I’ve tried my best to filter out and counter some of these pressures for the folks I work with, and I know my manager has done the same. But this isn’t universal, or I hazard to guess even all that common. And the pandemic of 2020 has pulled back the curtain on the utter absurdity of these artificial constraints, but not for all (and most importantly, seemingly not for those in power).
Overall, 2020 has revealed just how unprepared we were for any disruption to our status quo, as individuals and organizations. What we need isn’t more wellbeing seminars or working groups, but to catch up with the paradigm shift and the new state in which we all find ourselves. One where people come first, processes are in place to serve us (not the other way around), and where we can hopefully thrive again in our infinite wonder.