The impacts of COVID-19 have been far reaching, and beyond the truly devastating impacts to health and livelihoods are a plethora of smaller, less obvious impacts affecting individual activities and professions. Those of us involved in fieldwork, whether as researchers or conservationists, are no exception. Across the globe there will be countless long-term data sets, designed to provide a priceless record of changes to our natural world over time, that will have a conspicuous gap where their 2020 and 2021 time points should be. In the best cases this hole will prove nothing more than a minor inconvenience, with trends found to have largely continued ready to be redetected once the data starts flooding in once more. In others, researchers will have lost valuable time in being able to detect new or enlarged threats and respond appropriately to them. In the very worst cases, the loss of momentum (and often funding, expertise and logistical support) caused by such a pause in activities will mean those monitoring efforts will never be resuscitated.
Although paling in comparison to those who have truly suffered the impacts of this pandemic, being a field scientist has been a strange and challenging experience. Fieldwork has been arranged, cancelled, re-arranged and then re-cancelled, seemingly ad infinitum; an endless groundhog day-style cycle of optimistic highs and disappointing lows. Local partners, often heavily reliant on the income from hosting researchers, have seen this source of funding dry up, often in countries without the generous financial support packages from governments we enjoyed here in the UK. Projects, years in the making, find themselves having swallowed up more than half their funding without a single data point having been collected. PhD students find themselves closer to submitting their thesis than to the day they first started, having never been able to visit their study sites. This in turn ramps up the pressure on fieldwork, when it can finally happen, to account for the shortfall and collect entire projects’ worth of data in a single sitting.
But the enforced isolation of the pandemic has also brought some unexpected benefits. Most notably, the seemingly endless lists of half-finished and yet-to-be-started research papers that litter the desks of most researchers have actually started to shrink. This means that many studies may finally see the light of day, informing peers of the work that’s been done and minimising needless repetition caused by existing findings being restricted to some obscure folder on a single academic’s laptop. Whether the Editors of journals, now drowning in a deluge of papers from academics stuck at home with lockdown boredom, view this as quite such a benefit remains to be seen, but for those of us involved in the writing of scientific journal articles, we’re certainly enjoying the thinnest of COVID silver linings; the briefest of periods, likely the only time in our careers, where just for a moment we could see the end of our to do lists!