Where do you get data if you can't go to the laboratory? How can medieval manuscripts be examined if the archive is closed? And what archeological insights can be gained if distant excavation sites are inaccessible? Basic researchers are currently faced with several such critical questions. As virtual exchange with researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) shows, their answers are as creative as they are cooperative.
"Research is open for business!" - Jochen Schieck is sure of that. Nonetheless, given the current circumstances, it is clear to the director of the Institute of High Energy Physics of the OeAW that it won’t continue as normal. Large meetings, such as those to coordinate research projects at the particle accelerator at CERN, now take place via video conferences. Digital communication has long been indispensable in highly international basic research. Virtual meetings with 60 participants from 25 different countries had previously been held, but converting large canceled conferences into interactive digital lectures has rarely been done before, Schieck says.
But such technical solutions are currently making a significant contribution to being able to further organize and carry out basic research, confirms Julia Budka, archeologist at the Institute for Oriental and European Archaeology of the OeAW and the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. From job interviews with project staff, which are now conducted via conference software, to the opening of inventories of digital literature by the large publishers, to expanded virtual availability of scientific libraries, new services that scientists can (and must) use from home are being created every day.
"We are adapting the research design: since trips are currently not possible, we are for the time being concentrating on analyzing material."
Studies on the research subject itself are currently almost impossible in many cases – a challenge that Ljiljana Radonić also faces. The political scientist at the Institute of Cultural Studies and Theater History of the OeAW is leading a project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) that, since 2019, has been dealing with the memory of the Holocaust and genocide in 50 museums around the world. The current travel restrictions drastically hinder such projects. Radonić sees the solution in an organizational decision: "We are now adapting the research design. Since trips are currently not possible and many museums are closed, we are no longer analyzing museum by museum, but are for the time being concentrating on evaluating material from previous trips, on the theoretical work and on the research literature. So, we're changing the whole workflow of the project."
Solidarity and collegiality
For this plan to succeed, cooperation between researchers and across disciplinary and political boundaries is all the more important. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller gives an idea of how strong solidarity and collegiality are in the research world. The Byzantium researcher at the Institute for Medieval Research of the OeAW refers, for example, to online scientific exchange platforms. These first arose in the wake of the great financial crisis in Greece and Italy, and are being used in the current crisis for scientific peers to exchange their digital scans and images. This enables a wide variety of research projects to be carried out without physical presence.
"We are sitting on tons of data that can now finally be analyzed."
In another form, this is also possible in the natural sciences. In many cases, such research is unthinkable without a laboratory. "Of course, we are currently unable to acquire any laboratory data", confirms Ruben Gutzat, plant scientist at the GMI - Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the OeAW. Like many of his colleagues, he is using datasets already acquired in the past. "We are sitting on tons of data that can now finally be analyzed", OeAW physicist Schieck similarly confirms.
Crisis as an opportunity
Basic research is countering the current exceptional situation with numerous other measures and creative solutions. Many researchers agree on one thing: the situation not only represents an enormous challenge to society, but can also be viewed as an opportunity in the sciences. For example, new technical or organizational solutions being tested now may also be useful after the crisis.