In the face of enormous challenges with the Covid-19 pandemic, research institutes around the world are finding ways to overcome the difficulties imposed by lockdown and social distancing.
ICTP is meeting the challenge by increasing its offering of virtual seminars and colloquia and providing open source research and training resources. These services have been particularly appreciated by ICTP's partner institutes, regional centres of excellence in physics and mathematics located in Brazil, China, Mexico and Rwanda.
Like ICTP, the partner institutes are closed, and all outreach activities such as seminars and workshops have been postponed indefinitely or cancelled. However, their willingness to carry on with research and supply quality learning opportunities is as strong as ever. In a series of recent interviews with ICTP, the heads of the partner institutes shared the strategies they are taking to keep their scientists connected. Technology plays a key role: partner institutes are organizing virtual lectures and are in the process of implementing remote research and distance learning courses. Some admit, though, that the local technology infrastructures are adding to the challenge of staying connected to the rest of the world.
Nathan Berkovits, director of the ICTP-South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR) in São Paulo, Brazil, says that many of their courses for graduate students are being held online and that most of the researchers meet regularly with other scientists or with students online through videoconference. Of the many activities that were usually taking place in the institute in São Paulo, several are now taking place online. For example, their weekly journal clubs in the four fields of string theory, particle physics, cosmology and complex systems, are now all happening through online meetings. “We also have an outreach program involving classes for high school students which are being taught online,” said Berkovits, adding, “One advantage is that we are attracting students from all over Brazil, and also from Portugal. So, we are hoping that our online activities will allow us to reach a larger audience than would be possible with activities that require physical presence.”
Moreover, in June, two major events will happen online: a one-week workshop on string field theory and a two-week school on particle physics, organized jointly with ICTP.
Zhang Min, coordinator of the ICTP-Asia Pacific (ICTP-AP) in Beijing, says that all of the institute’s activities have been cancelled or postponed until the emergency will start to subside, but that at the moment nothing is certain. Recently, China started to see a gradual reopening of activities and most scientists could go back to their offices or laboratories, but the academic courses are still conducted online. However, many concerns for the future of the institute’s research remain. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health emergency,” says Zhang. “COVID-19 is not just altering everyday life; it’s also upending normal research. As universities and institutes across the country go virtual, researchers are scrambling to protect their funding and their careers. Although theoretical research is practically less affected, international cooperation and face-to-face exchanges would be interrupted for a long time.”
ICTP’s partner institute in Mexico, the Mesoamerican Center for Theoretical Physics (MCTP), will start a programme of online conferences in the near future. “Nowadays, a lot can be made from home,” says MCTP Director Luis Felipe Rodríguez Jorge, “but there is no substitute to personal interaction. We are starting to realize that this situation may last many months and it will significantly affect interaction with colleagues and research networks.”
In Rwanda, the ICTP-East African Institute of Fundamental Research (EAIFR) has cancelled all planned meetings, workshops and conferences, as well as all the travels to or from other research centres. “Students have been directed to online instruction materials for different courses and we have lecturers following them in their progress,” says Director Omololu Akin-Ojo, “but some of them do not have good internet at home, and research has been hampered for them. Our main concern now is to try to facilitate these students to have an improved internet connection wherever they are, so that they can resume their work properly.”
ICTP's new virtual seminars initiative has been warmly welcomed by all scientists in its partner institutes, as they see it as a wonderful opportunity to learn and follow up on science while far away and even in isolation, provided that technological limits are not too difficult to overcome. “ICTP has helped us by opening up their seminars to us over the Internet. We are grateful for this,” says Akin-Ojo.
The institutes’ directors agree that while in lockdown at home, most people have more time for personal research and they are taking advantage of the possibility to access more publications, books or audio-visual materials from ICTP’s archives.
“As one of the most successful international organizations, ICTP is doing very well in cultural transmission, management and activities,” says Zhang. “ICTP-AP would like to follow the ripe experience from ICTP to grow fast.”
Berkovits is also turning to ICTP to cope with the current situation. “It would be great to learn from the experiences of ICTP Trieste,” says Berkovits. “Director Atish Dabholkar and other ICTP-Trieste faculty invited our faculty to a videoconference meeting a few weeks ago where we discussed possible joint online activities, some of which are already taking place.”
Apart from the possibility to take part in online seminars and conferences, the availability of scientific papers is fundamental to keep track of research around the world, and therefore the theme of open access is an important consideration for all of the directors. “I was really impressed by the action taken by several journals to give open access to their material,” says Director Rodriguez Jorge. And his view is shared by ICTP-AP Director Zhang: “The present pandemic makes us further recognize the importance for promoting widespread awareness and boundary-breaking ideas. ICTP-AP would promote open access data and collaborative analysis for global scientists in right time.”
Many other opportunities can arise from adversity, especially if research is involved. At SAIFR, a research group is actively working on mathematical models for epidemics. The group had organized a workshop at the beginning of March on Modelling of Infectious Diseases Dynamics. The organizer of this workshop, Roberto Kraenkel, is now the leader of a team which monitors the disease in São Paulo. At EAIFR, they are considering to undertake research on the photo-degradation of parts of the covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) virus. “There is some indication that sunlight stops the functioning of the virus,” says Akin-Ojo, “and it would be interesting to know more.”
It is clear that in times of crises, science builds communities and keeps people together. “The aspect of physics that has most impressed me is the willingness of researchers to sacrifice their time to give online lectures,” says Berkovits. “There is no monetary compensation, they do not get to travel to new places, and they do not even hear applause at the end of their presentation, which is much more difficult to prepare than an ordinary lecture. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of physicists accept invitations to give online lectures.”