How will scientific collaboration look like post-COVID? We can’t know for sure, but there’s no turning back

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum
Vinton Cerf during the panel: “Scientific exchange and collaboration in the post-COVID-era”

“Post-COVID is an interesting term,” says Vint Cerf who holds the unique title of Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. “We likely won’t eradicate this virus anytime soon. We might be looking at regular vaccine shots, but a vaccine doesn’t even exist yet.”

Indeed, it’s been around six months since our normal lives came to a screeching halt, and yet there’s no end in sight to this pandemic. But one way or another, vital activities such as education and research must go on. At this year’s virtual Heidelberg Laureate Forum, Cerf (ACM A.M. Turing Award laureate and one of the ‘fathers of the internet’) sat down with Fields Medal laureates Efim Zelmanov and Alessio Figalli to discuss what a post-pandemic world might have in store for us.

It’s been remarkable to see how much online education and communication has stepped up over the course of this pandemic, notes Zelmanov. As it’s been repeatedly pointed out in this year’s sessions, at least in terms of remote communication, society has been remarkably prepared for the pandemic. But something bugs Zelmanov: 

“We’re warm blooded creatures,” he says.

We’ve all felt it. The lack of social interaction and the uncertainty have been stressful and unpleasant. This is more than just an inconvenience, Zelmanov and Figalli explain: online teaching is better than nothing, but it’s a far cry from the real thing. The role of education is more than just imparting knowledge. There’s no direct interaction, there’s no blackboard to write things on, there’s no sharing of ideas and fortuitous, fruitful meetings. Figalli has been teaching online courses, but he can’t wait for real, face-to-face interactions with students.

Efim Zelmanov during “Scientific exchange and collaboration in the post-COVID-era.”

It’s not just education, Zelmanov points out — research is also suffering. Mathematicians, he argues, often work on problems detached from reality, so they need each other’s support and inspiration. Without face-to-face interaction, that support network is stifled.

It’s not all bad, though. As Cerf says, online attendance is sometimes higher than before, especially in the fields of computer science. Furthermore, conferences can sometimes be exclusive to people who can’t afford to travel, while online events are free for everyone to attend. Figalli also points out that online education might be more inclusive in one way: in his observations, girls are often more reluctant to actively engage in the class, while boys tend to be more aggressive. Under the guise of the online environment, he’s seen female participation go up.

Chance encounters (such as the one you might have in a university when going for a coffee) can also be emulated online. Cerf points out an internal Google initiative when colleagues can meet in ‘virtual micro-kitchens’ and just chat.

Of course, no matter how creative and innovative technological solutions can get, it’s hard to imagine a replacement for human interaction. Zelmanov is absolutely right: we’re warm blooded creatures. But one thing’s for sure: we’ve learned some valuable lessons over this period, and there’s no turning back. A lot of our work, it turns out, can be done from home. Remote education, while not a replacement for the classical process, can be a complement and can help underprivileged students. Conferences can do a better job at being inclusive. 

Perhaps, the panel ponders, something good can come of this pandemic. After all, just like it’s human nature to seek interaction, trying to find solutions is also an innate human quality. For now, we will work with what we have, the panel agrees. But once we come to some semblance of normalcy, there’s no turning back to the way things were. We can do better.

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Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He is the co-founder of ZME Science, where he published over 2,000 articles. Andrei tries to blend two things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place -- one article at a time.

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