The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has a strong impact on our everyday life, forcing us to adapt both our personal and professional lives. Many academics now face the challenges of getting used to remote working, but many tasks remain impossible to conduct from home. While essential empirical work can still be conducted within research premises in most Universities, conducting work outside the laboratory (i.e. in the field) incurs some specific challenges. Biology researchers within the University of Turku are not only conducting fieldwork in Finland, but also in various places around the world ,such as in South-America for studying the Amazonian forest, Myanmar for studying Asian elephants or some remote French sub-Antarctic islands (Crozet Archipelago) for studying king penguins in my case.
While many countries cancelled most fieldwork-related activities last spring (an unfortunate timing considering that many field activities are restricted to a narrow time-window during this season), we have been relatively lucky in Finland to have the possibility to conduct minimum to normal fieldwork activities thanks to a relatively quiet COVID situation and support from our institutions. However, conducting fieldwork abroad has mostly been cancelled and is continuing to be cancelled (for very valid reasons), incurring the inevitable loss of precious data.
While missing one field season might not seem that important, it can have tremendous consequences, especially for continuous monitoring programs, creating gaps in long-term biological time series. Collecting field data over multiple years allows biologists to detect gradual trends, but also short-term anomalies in the health of ecosystems and biological communities. Long-term monitoring programs have for instance been crucial for understanding how climate change is affecting the abundance and distribution of species and the timing of spring events, such as bird migrations and plant flowering. Additionally, missing one field season will have a considerably higher impact on young researchers such as PhD students and postdocs having time-limited contracts, since missing even a few days in the field can delay research projects of 1 year.
Despite the current challenges linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is always something to learn from new situations. For instance, many long-term monitoring programs around the world (e.g. in South America, Asia, Africa) are conducted by scientists working thousands of kilometres away from their field site (e.g. Europe, USA), which brings extra troubles in the current time of pandemics (but not only), but also raises some societal/ethical concerns. The ongoing pandemic might be a good opportunity to take the time to consider how we could progressively relocate at least part of the research/monitoring activities in those areas to local scientists and organizations.
PhD Antoine Stier
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Ecology and Evolution Biology