The coronavirus pandemic significantly disrupted efforts by universities to solidify and expand their research partnerships across 2020. With borders closed, conferences canceled, travel significantly limited, and the attentions of leaders turned to other pressing matters, identifying and establishing new research arrangements (especially internationally) was placed on the backburner. With vaccines in distribution in 2021, however, leaders can now revisit transformed international partnership opportunities to expand their research portfolio and grow globally. Here are three early impacts COVID-19 has had on research partnerships—and what universities can do now to be among the first to take advantage of new arrangements.
1. Geography is no longer destiny
Prior to the pandemic, a frequent barrier to university partnerships was a lack of physical presence in a region of interest. Universities would invest heavily to build extensive offices, laboratories, or whole campuses and recruit staff from both the target area and the home community to run gatherings, set-up meetings, and facilitate in-person collaboration. This physical development was expensive, inherently limiting the number of international partnerships institutions could pursue.
The pandemic, however, has dispelled myths about the necessity of physical presence by forcing many into virtual working arrangements. Faculty, researchers, and staff are now more familiar and comfortable than ever hosting meetings and managing projects using video conferencing and digital collaboration tools. While physical presence and investment will still provide advantages, universities can now more confidently pursue initial arrangements and smaller partnerships that are developed either entirely online or in hybrid formats (once in-person interactions are allowed).
2. Biomedical technologies are the new focus
While many research projects were delayed by COVID-19, biomedical research and technologies rose to the forefront of public interest. Faculty at many universities were heavily involved in successes in these fields, ranging from vaccine creation at the University of Oxford to infection testing at the University of Illinois to wastewater analysis at Arizona State University. Higher ed researchers were also at the forefront of budding research in interdisciplinary fields around biomedicine, such as the long-term health impacts of isolation and technological advances in remote work.
With the memory of the pandemic at the forefront of policymakers’ and donors’ minds for the foreseeable future, biomedical projects will have an easier time generating interest and gaining funding. As well, many of the rapid advances in testing, contact tracing, medical treatment, and vaccine development have vast potential for additional applications outside of COVID-19. Universities that target or encourage faculty to work with universities behind these innovations or with strong biomedical talent may reap significant gains quickly.
3. Funding has (or will) become more limited
Economic downturns, massive stimulus packages, and large-scale vaccine purchases have significantly sapped state, provincial, and federal governments of their limited budgets. The pandemic therefore is anticipated to accelerate the already persistent decline in governmental funding available for university research endeavors. Because of this and market uncertainty limiting corporate investments, universities should expect increased competition among researchers for a relatively smaller pool of resources.
International partnerships have the potential to offset some of these losses by allowing universities to tap new funding sources, share costly talent and infrastructure development, and get easier access to newer markets for potential IP commercialization. However, the coronavirus pandemic has enflamed tensions between countries that have been relied on for accessible partnerships in the past. Foreign interference investigations, concerns around data privacy, and cybersecurity breaches—while not directly caused by the pandemic—have added complexity to international partnership identification and compliance already strained by COVID-19 considerations.