From new clinical studies to studying wildlife and boredom, how COVID-19 presents new scientific research opportunities.
As COVID-19 sets out to change the world forever, join Sandra Peter and Kai Riemer as they think about what’s to come in the future of business.
This episode is part of a podcast series covering what COVID-19 will mean for the business world, where we look at the impact on the economy, businesses, industries, workers and society. This is part of our ongoing coverage of the impact of COVID-19 on the future of business.
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Intro From the University of Sydney Business School, this Sydney Business Insights.
Sandra And this is Corona Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter.
Kai And I'm Kai Riemer.
Sandra And with everything that's been happening, it's been difficult to understand what COVID-19 might mean for the business world. So in this series, we've been unpacking its impact on business, the economy, industry, government, workers, and society, and have been looking at the effects of the pandemic.
Kai And this podcast is, of course, part of a larger initiative by the University of Sydney Business School. Our COVID business impact dashboard is a living initiative, which we constantly update with insights and resources from our academics, from industry experts, Nobel Prize winners, and movers and shakers.
Sandra And you can find all of these resources online at sbi.sydney.edu.au/coronavirus.
Kai And today we talk about new science opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sandra The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented moment in modern history, and it has provided some unique opportunities and also some unique challenges to doing research. On the one hand, it has halted a lot of the long-term ongoing research, whether that was in the natural sciences or the social sciences. But it has also provided some unique opportunities to do new type of research, and we'll be focussing on these today.
Kai So firstly, we should mention that the pandemic has disrupted a lot of ongoing research studies. And while this is not the main topic of this podcast, we should all be aware that a lot of studies in both the health and medical sciences, as well as other academic disciplines, were fundamentally disrupted by the pandemic. Ongoing cancer research had to be disrupted because patients had to be isolated, hospital wards, hospital facilities and doctors had to be reassigned to help with fighting the pandemic. But also other researchers in the non-medical or health fields had their studies interrupted.
Sandra Many of our colleagues who were conducting research in various types of organisations have had to halt or fundamentally alter their studies. Given that we've all been working from home in conditions that are very different to those that we have normally been working on, or that we were expecting to be working on.
Kai So any research that relies on observing reasonably stable or in inverted commas 'normal patterns', be that movements of goods, supply chains, organisational behaviour, consumer behaviour. Those studies are no longer able to collect the kind of reliable data that they depend on.
Sandra But for many researchers, the pandemic has created a really unexpected opportunity to run something akin to natural experiments. A group of scientists recently has actually coined the term for what we're all collectively experiencing and has coined it the 'anthropause'. In a recent article in the journal Nature, Ecology and Evolution, they coined the term the 'anthropause' to refer specifically to a considerable global slowing of modern activities, notably travel. And in many parts of the world, we've seen lockdown's across cities and across countries has led to not only a decrease in traffic and pollution and noise levels around cities, but also a return of much of the wildlife that has traditionally stayed away from places where humans were very active.
Kai And so we want to look at a few examples, and we want to distinguish between what we might call first order opportunities for new research and second order opportunities. So the first order ones are the immediate ones that stem from the kind of changes we had to make to our daily lives or conducting work as a direct result of the pandemic, such as research into working from home, research in to the digital transformation of work practises. We can now, for example, do studies that compare teams that have transitioned from co-located work practises to remote work practises in an orderly fashion, with the productivity of those that had to adapt at very short notice within a week as work had to hastily move online to see what are the implications or one of the effects of good management, for example. So that's one way of making use of what is happening to derive insight in business or more social science disciplines. There's also studies, of course, in economics where the economic fallout from the slowing down of economic activity presents economists with opportunities to learn more about the resilience of financial systems, for example, about the job market, about the agility of labour markets in both laying off people and rehiring people, and compare this between different jurisdictions, between different countries.
Sandra And many others, of course. Researchers had a chance to look at things like consumer behaviour, for instance, how our patterns of buying things changed to online where we can no longer go to shops. How we change our eating habits if restaurants are no longer available. How we buy a lot of toilet paper in every wave of the pandemic.
Kai The ways in which supply chains are being disrupted. There is, for example, in supply chain management, a well-known phenomenon called the 'bullwhip effect', which describes how demand swings amplify as they move up the supply chain from the end consumer all the way to the producers of products, and what problems that creates. We're normally only able to observe these at smaller scales or simulate those in software. Now, with the pandemic and the unprecedented swings in consumer behaviour, we have the ability to research in a natural experiment what these swings do to supply chains, and therefore the ability to stress test supply chains and study their resilience.
Sandra Not only theirs, but also that of educational institutions like ours. What happens when you have a massive shift to teaching classes online? This sort of research could only really be done during a pandemic, or testing how students perform with online education versus face to face classes. And there is, of course, many studies that would have been unethical to be conducted under any other circumstances. For instance, in medical research, some of the types of natural experiments that have unfortunately come about with this pandemic would have been unethical to run under normal circumstances. What happens if there is a severe limitation of protective equipment in a hospital? Or if there are drug shortages?
Kai Or research into the ethics of how to make life and death decisions around who to allocate ventilators to? While the world has to cope with these unfortunate circumstances, we will nonetheless be able to learn a lot from these instances that will help us to prepare for future crises.
Sandra There's also been interesting research, some of which was conducted out of our Institute of Transport and Logistics into patterns of travel and transport into congestion patterns, not only in Australia, but we've seen interesting data coming out of places like India, where Indian residents could see for the first time the peaks of the Himalayas from Punjab, after a massive drop in air pollution that was caused by the slowing down of traffic allowed the air to clear and for the mountains to be visible for the first time. And that's, of course, something that is actually visible from space. And we've seen interesting shots out of NASA and the European Space Agency monitoring pollution around the world and seeing significant declines in the amount of nitrogen dioxide over Europe and over China and India in the last few months.
Kai And these are the kind of second order opportunities that we're talking about as traffic goes down, which would be a first order phenomenon. Pollution also goes down, which then offers new research opportunities that did not exist before. In the example of pollution in Indian cities, what this affords researchers is to, for the first time, get a baseline reading of what a non-polluted city would look like. This provides data that previously could only be estimated or derived from computer models having extra hard data on what a non-polluting city without car activity would look like also gives researchers a much better standing in the political discourse in putting their results forward. Advocate for change in regulation that will improve the air quality for citizens of those cities.
Sandra Interestingly, not just air pollution, but another second-order effect has been that around noise pollution and around what researchers have called the silent cities. The fact that before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation had identified most pollution as the second most dangerous environmental risk for humans. After, of course, air pollution and the sound pollution in cities has dropped by as much as 90 percent in areas like Paris during the lockdown.
Kai And this offers opportunities for both social scientists who might study the effect of noise pollution on well-being and people living their daily lives, but also city planners, even material scientists who can now derive data on how to. Create better cityscapes that are noise absorbed and or at least reduce the reflection of noise and the amplification of noise in certain areas of the city, such as recreational areas.
Sandra But of course, this is not only good for humans, it's also fantastic for animals. The fact that cruise ships and tourist ships have all but stopped has brought back the whales because noisy ships interfered with the way they communicate. Whales used to stay far away from the transport lanes, but now they're back. And if you're in Sydney, if you go down to Royal National Park, you have a chance of seeing about 40 an hour, I think, by the last counts. But also in other places around the world, there have been articles around mountain lions being in downtown San Francisco and wild boars moving around in cities in Italy and Spain, or geese laying claim to airports and of course, the urban rats being out during the daytime.
Kai And this offers researchers never seen before opportunities, for example, as noise from ships has dropped down. They can, for the first time with modern instruments, study the communication between whales who turn out to be much more active, much more communicative now that the cruise ships are no longer frequenting certain bays where, you know, multiple cruise ships per week or even per day would normally come in, which not only brings the whales back, but also the researchers who can now study how whales communicate.
Sandra Unfortunately, this has not all been good news. Whilst most of the stories have focussed on how various species have thrived during the pandemic. There are, of course, paradoxical effects in that the COVID-19 lockdown could prove to be catastrophic for certain endangered species. And we have spoken about this in a previous episode where we look at how species such as the African rhinos rely on the money that's coming in from tourism to not only maintain the habitats that they're in, but also pay for the armed guards and fund the park rangers that keep them safe. Most of this is funded by tourism money, which has all but disappeared and is not set to return to these areas for the foreseeable future.
Kai And our final example is a really interesting one, which is the study of boredom. So boredom is, of course, a part of daily life. And there is researchers who have made this their research subject and this experimental research that boredom researchers would typically do where they put research subjects through really boring tasks and then do numerological studies or look at what actually contributes to the experience of boredom, how to conceptualise boredom and bile. All of this is fine doing this in a laboratory. It is very hard to normally study. How people react to boredom in real life would be effects of boredom is how people would get out of boredom. Do they engage in unhealthy behaviour, for example, consuming, you know, snacks and things that are not healthy? Or would they rather do some cooking or engage in positive social behaviour? All of this is not normally possible to study in natural settings.
Sandra But with many people staying home and having not much to do during the pandemic, this has provided a unique opportunity for researchers to study this in its natural setting and see whether people turn to growing their own sourdough or binge-watching Netflix, or whether indeed they turn towards more self-destructive behaviour like eating the entire contents of your fridge.
Kai But before we add to this stream of research and put you through another boredom study, this is we want to leave it.
Sandra This has been Corona Business Insights.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Sandra Thanks for listening.
Outro From the University of Sydney Business School. This is Sydney Business Insights, the podcast that explores the future of business.