Reflections on 2020: COVID, research, career and prospects

By Ronin Research Scholar Keith Tse

2020 has been a year like no other, and for obvious reasons. It came as no surprise that the word chosen as Word of the Year for 2020 by the American Dialect Society was COVID, since this has been and still is plaguing (literally) our global community since the beginning of 2020. The effects of the worst pandemic in almost a century have been disastrous for all of us, since with travel bans in place and people being discouraged from even leaving their homes many businesses, especially retail and tourist-related ones, have gone into recession, which will no doubt get worse in the coming years and drag our global economy down with it. In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment and many prospective academic hopefuls (myself included) are rethinking their career plans and even established academics are now considering leaving academia for financially more stable pastures (which may perhaps make them want to join our institute for independent scholars, though such causal connections are yet to be established).

In academia and higher education, the significant drop in revenue caused by students now studying from home, attending lectures online and abstaining from even coming into university campus has forced many universities to reconsider their budget and departmental infrastructure, which seems to have a ripple-effect on admissions and employment

The human cost of the pandemic has also been vast and grave, not only in terms of the number of daily/weekly reported deaths and the soaring number of infections overwhelming our public health systems, but also in terms of our collective mental health which has shown record number of cases of depression and suicide or simply mass anger as seen in recent protests and demonstrations against nationwide lockdown in numerous countries. There is light to be glimpsed from the end of this dark tunnel with mass vaccination now being put into effect by governments and well-credited pharmaceutical companies, though it would be naïve to think that our world will suddenly go back to its pre-COVID state just because we now have something that comes close to being a cure, especially since we have now discovered that it is possible for the virus to mutate and spread asymptomatically. The end of 2020 is truly a pivotal moment in our modern history, and as we transition into 2021, we seem to find ourselves in a crisis that only occurs once in a lifetime (let’s certainly hope so!). Nonetheless, being appointed Community Journalist at our institute since last July has given me a very different perspective on our Ronin community and beyond as I am now jointly (with the amazing Alex Lancaster) responsible for internal and external communications and have learnt a great deal about our members and our scholarly activities. I do believe that there have been some positives which have sprung from our global crisis, and these may prove critical in shaping the new normal in our research-related fields and beyond.

First of all, working from home. This has been encouraged by nearly all governments in countries which have contracted COVID, and our home has become both abode and place for work. This has drawn mixed reaction, since while some welcome it as they like the idea of working from the comforts of their own home, many others have found work-life balance much harder to strike, especially those who have young children to take care of at home. This is certainly reflected in some of the conversations I have had with our members, and although I have full sympathy for their dilemma, I honestly do not have a solution to it. That said, of all the industries that have been affected by our global lockdown (which pretty much includes all of them), non-experimental research fields are probably the least affected, since unless one’s research requires one to conduct experiments under very specific conditions (like in a laboratory) or to go on field trips abroad, our lives as researchers have never been confined to a rigid routine, like the 9-5 office hours which govern large sectors of the working population. In the words of our President Jon Wilkins at one of our meetings, ‘research is a continuous process that does not just happen during one’s working hours’, and we researchers often have to work through the weekend and holidays, especially when we are hooked onto a particular research idea which may end up keeping us awake through day and night. The advantage of this research lifestyle is that everyday is a holiday, since there is no need to go to work, but the disadvantage is that everyday is a working day, since one is in effect working all the time by thinking about the same things over and over again.

Speaking as a scholar who does research in theoretical Linguistics (some of which I managed to present at a Ronin seminar last November for which I am eternally grateful to the organisers, namely Jon Wilkins, Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster and Varsha Dani), my work has pretty much gone on as usual, since, despite the strict lockdown in the UK where I am based, I have managed to supply myself with all the stationary and inventory I need for drawing formal representations, and my electronic devices have worked well enough for me to continue as usual in annotating linguistic structures and carrying out statistical analysis. Soliciting linguistic data from native speakers of foreign languages has been more of an ordeal, but our social media is so powerful that it is possible to get in touch with anyone who has access to the internet and has the relevant social media apps at his/her disposal (Whatsapp, WeChat, Microsoft Teams, Google Meetup, and, of course, Zoom, which has become the default application among all our professional circles). In my case, I have managed to consult speakers of foreign languages on Facebook, WeChat and via email on many linguistic details which I need for my research (and I thank them for their patience, generosity and willingness to address my queries). Collecting and measuring natural data is well-nigh impossible without access to special equipment or going on fieldtrips, but for those who, like me, conduct social scientific research, social distancing should not be an insurmountable problem, even if we may still prefer in-person communication. I hope that COVID has not caused too many obstacles to those who conduct practical research.

While I agree that it is better for our mental and physical health to communicate and interact with each other face-to-face, I strongly support … calls for virtual conferencing to remain as an option for future conferences due to the many benefits …

Another major aspect of our research lifestyle to have suffered major disruptions due to COVID is attending and participating in conferences, which is such an important part of our lives as scholarly researchers. For me, it has certainly felt strange to have spent that much time at home without going to conferences abroad, to the extent that I have often felt rather fed up at times, a sentiment shared by many people around the world.  That said, although many conferences have either been cancelled or postponed indefinitely pending further approval from the authorities, it has been remarkable how most of our conferences have moved online in a virtual format, which has been a fantastic development since it has allowed us researchers to remain active in terms of sharing research with our fellow researchers and seeking feedback to our work. Moreover, virtual conferencing has vastly expanded the scale of conference attendance since many more people are now able to attend virtual conferences without having to worry about travel or accommodation costs, a formerly major deterrent for low-paid and untenured academic researchers. I have certainly greatly enjoyed having a wide range of virtual events at my disposal to which I simply tune in from the comforts of my home (or from my bed on many occasions!), and I have learnt so much by simply being ‘present’ at these conferences/webinars. My overall expenditure and consumption have also gone down dramatically, to the extent that I have actually made a net profit despite the dramatic, albeit less drastic, decrease in income. It is amazing how my finances have not dropped into the red, given what I said about global finances above. There are now even talks in my field of keeping virtual formats of conferencing even after the pandemic (whenever that may be!). While I agree that it is better for our mental and physical health to communicate and interact with each other face-to-face, I strongly support such calls for virtual conferencing to remain as an option for future conferences due to the many benefits outline here.

Another inevitable apocalyptic consequence of COVID is our global economy, which, as mentioned above, is bound to affect all of us one way or another. In addition to university posts being made to disappear and funding opportunities being called off if not drying up altogether, seeking research funding, which has always been one of the toughest parts in the lives of academics whose jobs and lives may well depend on the availability of these already lean and scanty funds, has become even more difficult as our research fields undergo further cuts even more drastic than those we went through during the Great Recession ten years ago. That said, it is astonishing how many more funding and research opportunities have been created in response to COVID, since many funding agencies have launched emergency funding grants for COVID-related research and numerous laboratories at prestigious universities and pharmaceutical companies have also sought to expand their research capabilities by recruiting new members to aid their research on COVID which is still ongoing despite of the discovery and testing of new vaccines. The amount of research interest in COVID-related issues is huge and seems to be growing by the day, and at Ronin there has certainly been major interest in COVID which does not just consist of two interest groups on our Slack channels in which there have been many stimulating discussions but is also seen in the launching of a major research project by Michele King-Okoye, a major research grant for Dyah Pitaloka and a collection of papers by Jorrit Poelen. New research papers have not just been produced by those who work in bio-related fields but also by scholars in the social sciences, as seen in Michele Battle-Fisher’s presentation at the University of Milan Virtual Series on Complexity, Stéphanie Cassilde‘s new book, new papers by Ponn Mahayosnand and Mattia Allieta, and Ainara Mancebo’s latest interview, all of which deal with many different aspects in which COVID has changed and affected our lives. It seems that COVID has permeated all walks of life and has stimulated all aspects of research and led to a boom of new publications and funded projects. Surely not a bad thing.

The COVID crisis has demonstrated just that, and as we grapple with the new reality of living with a new virus … we have had to discover new ways of carrying on with our daily lives which have seen some useful and, I hope, long-lasting developments. In the likelihood that these stay even after our world is restored to a post-COVID new normal…our world may well become a better, safer, greener and more efficient place in which to live and work.

Paradoxically, and I do love paradoxes, what has been a curse to our research fields has turned out to have some surprising benefits which have seen the expansion of certain areas in our fields which probably would not have been expanded if it had not been for COVID. It is commonly said that success is borne out of necessity and failure and it is in times of difficulty and desperation that we as a community begin to react and make progress. The COVID crisis has demonstrated just that, and as we grapple with the new reality of living with a new virus for which there is no cure (alas, vaccines are not fool-proof), we have had to discover new ways of carrying on with our daily lives which have seen some useful and, I hope, long-lasting developments. In the likelihood that these stay even after our world is restored to a post-COVID new normal which almost certainly will not be the same as pre-COVID, our world may well become a better, safer, greener and more efficient place in which to live and work. Moreover, as COVID will almost certainly be looked upon as a major global crisis by future generations, it is our job to document it with our first-hand experience in our academic writing, but first we need to live through it and experience it, however scary and dangerous it seems. I am certainly not suggesting that we break lockdown protocols and get ourselves infected by this deadly virus which has been shown to be deadly even among the young and healthy demography of our population, but rather than sulking in fear and social withdrawal (which is crucially different from social distancing), let’s learn to live with the uncertainty and prove to our children that we are capable of coming out of this crisis unscathed, if not better than before.

Here is a very Happy and Healthy New Year to all my fellow Ronin Scholars.

This blog post was originally published in the editorial of Kitsune Issue No. 2021-01. I thank Yasmina Jraissati for inviting me to write the editorial and Arika Virapongse for encouraging me to re-submit it to our Ronin blog.



Keith Tse joined the Ronin Institute as a Research Scholar in Linguistics in June 2018 and has gratefully received financial and institutional support from the Institute. Since July 2020 he has been a Community Journalist at the Institute working on internal and external communications which consist of publicising and disseminating news and events happening at the Institute and communicating with other Ronin Scholars on matters to do with research and career.

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