Science has been placed on hold in face of coronavirus

There is worldwide concern about the economic effects of the Chinese quarantine and stay-in-place policies designed to reduce transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus or COVID-19. Western industries are worried about the shutdown of critical supply chains. China’s science enterprise is likewise slowing down with each additional day of travel restrictions.

That includes the cutting-edge pure and applied research mostly conducted at universities, the sharing of results at conferences and their publication in science journals.

In addition, there is a massive pipeline of students into science that involves strenuous testing for entry into the best science institutions and unique graduate examination requirements that involve massive migration of science professors. In most of these science processes, China has a unique system that will be drastically challenged if this epidemic continues unabated.

For the past two years, Chinese researchers have authored more science articles than are authored by United States scientists. Nearly all of this research is supported by one or more grants, some from provincial sources and many from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Colleagues now indicate that deadlines for applications and final reports are in many cases being postponed.

China publishes roughly 500 science journals in English and 2,000 in Chinese. Several editors have indicated that in the case of journals that publish only once or twice a year, or even quarterly, they hope to stay on schedule. And they always plan for a Lunar New Year gap in labour. However, as stay-in-place policies continue past the holiday, monthly journals will begin to be affected.

Not only do print publications require press production, but the editorial and review process, despite being online, is slowed down without efficient office communication.

Conference travel

Conferences provide an important venue for the presentation and refinement of research results and China has become a major conference site. International congresses require international airlines while national conferences still require domestic travel.

Western airlines have suspended flights into China, with most choosing to do so until 27 March. On 12 February, Reuters announced that US airlines were moving the date for restoring air service to 24 April. Their calculations are being made not only on the likely transfer of infected persons, but also on the lack of passengers as long as the public perceives a danger in travel.

Earlier this month, the Mobile World Congress to be held in Barcelona for telecommunications experts was cancelled. Other international conferences are posting caveats on their online registration sites that register conference attendees.

Unless the epidemic slows dramatically and soon, colleagues who are on conference planning committees are having to make decisions in advance. Any March conferences are unlikely to see a large attendance. The decision to hold or cancel many April conferences will likely be made in the next two weeks.

Working from home

With the most severe quarantine and travel ban enforced in the city of Wuhan and its province of Hubei, you might expect university life to resume normalcy in the farthest away regions of China. But colleagues in universities from the northeast to southernmost China tell me they are also working from home.

“Students from my university are not allowed to come back to campus without notice. My university is closed and movement in and out is prevented. As far as I know, this is the situation in most universities in China,” reports one colleague. Other colleagues’ responses confirm this.

It is important to understand that classes in China generally consist of 60 to 120 students in close contact in classrooms, hallways and swarming to the canteen. Compared to Western universities, China’s institutions are far more crowded, making this reduction in interpersonal contact an important policy.

Faculty have been instructed to attempt to find online resources and try to deliver as much of their coursework as possible to students via online media. China has previously used online courses, primarily for professional development of postgraduates working in distant regions. And online media are nearly useless for providing genuine laboratory classes in the sciences.

Degree completion and exams

There are also students who left for the Lunar New Year holiday before the quarantine and now cannot get back to their university. I have also asked contacts in China if there are plans to extend this semester, which normally ends in June, into July or August. No one knows. This is a critical factor for a quarter of the undergraduates in China who should be completing their bachelor degree this June.

In American universities, the average student completes their undergraduate degree in five and a half years because more than 60% of them change majors at least once. In China, students select their major and have little chance to change it after the first year. They live together in the same dormitory section (often six or more per room) and attend most classes as a group, forming a group loyalty and making ‘classmates’ lifelong friends.

There is no room for staying an extra semester because that would reduce freshman capacity. Therefore China’s education policy-makers are faced with the problem of how to get this spring semester’s seniors finished and graduated.

Meanwhile, science masters and doctoral students face an upcoming problem. They would normally be defending their theses and dissertations in May and June. China’s education regulations require that an expert from another university sit on the exam panel. Therefore China’s domestic airlines in those months are full of professors flying to other universities. Normally those plans would be in the midst of being finalised, but, like most academic events, they are ‘on hold’.

On the afternoon of 12 February, China’s Ministry of Education held a press conference and was asked if there were plans to move back the gaokao, the end-of-high-school leaving exam where student scores also serve to rank who can enter their top universities.

The officials replied that the gaokao was four months away and that the national and provincial education authorities are watching the development of the epidemic situation. They have to assess the potential impact of the epidemic on organising and holding the exam. They will carefully work out the implementation plan and explain the arrangements to the public when they are able to be certain.

About 10 million Chinese high school seniors will take that exam, usually administered nationwide in early June. These students would normally be in their last semester of cramming for the exam.

While there is some variation in the gaokao by regions, the complex writing and printing of exams, plus scheduling of university professors to score essays in a week of lock-down grading, has to be planned ahead of time. About a half of China’s students pursue science fields in college and the gaokao is a major gatekeeper sorting the next generation of science professionals.

Higher education expansion

China’s ‘massification’ of higher education has contributed to the extensive cross-country travel that occurs each year during the Lunar New Year celebration. Before 1990, most citizens rode bicycles and stayed local. There were relatively few colleges and education was free to the top small number who scored highest on the gaokao. Visiting relatives during this holiday was a nearby affair.

Since the late 1990s, China’s unprecedented expansion of universities has allowed many more students to attend the best universities their scores will allow, usually far from home. There the college boy meets the girl of his dreams and a girl meets her ‘sunshine boy’. Now the New Year custom of visiting parents and grandparents on both sides of the family usually requires criss-crossing the country.

Higher education has not only dramatically raised China’s standard of living but has also directly contributed to the world’s largest migration and traffic jam (chun yùn). And that initial fluidity of population has also contributed to the difficulty of managing contagion.

In China, science remains ‘on hold’.

John Richard Schrock is editor of the Kansas School Naturalist at Emporia State University in the United States and also teaches various classes at universities in China.