The image of the brilliant researcher working alone in the lab is a staple of popular culture, but it is more the exception than the rule. In most disciplines, research is collaborative and highly social. Large teams have cooperated to decode the human genome, detect gravitational waves, piece together historical documents and excavate archeological sites. Today, research is more often than not a team sport.
COVID-19 has challenged that norm. In March 2020, researchers at Princeton, like those at universities across the country, switched off computers and equipment, cleaned out lab refrigerators, and shuttered their labs and ofﬁces. They went home to bedrooms, basements and dining rooms to spend the next few months staring at lab mates and collaborators through a two-dimensional screen.
Despite these challenges, Princeton research continued. Princeton researchers continued. They crunched data, wrote up their results, and shared their ideas and insights via videoconferencing. They maintained the social side of science. I cannot help but be impressed and inspired by how well Princeton research thrived throughout the roughly three-month stay-at-home period.
In June, we were fortunate to welcome back a portion of our research community, those whose work requires on-campus equipment. As of this message’s writing (early November), we continue to operate under the principle that work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely. We are working to bring back additional researchers as soon as it can be done safely.
If I was impressed by our researchers’ orderly shutdown in March, I am even more impressed with how our community has reopened the labs with thoughtfulness and consideration for one another’s health and safety. Our survey of researchers who have returned to campus showed very high compliance with mask wearing, social distancing, staying home when sick, and other public health measures.
What is more, our research enterprise continues to thrive. Our sponsored research expenditures for ﬁscal year 2020 were the highest on record, and our faculty continue to submit proposals and obtain funding for COVID-19 research and for other projects. In fact, proposal submissions during this period were the third highest on record. Our faculty and research teams continue to publish high-impact ﬁndings in major journals.
I’m particularly proud of how our scientists and scholars are contributing to confronting the pandemic. Early on, Princeton awarded nearly half a million dollars in COVID-19-related research funding that has already led to insights on ways to prevent infection as well as on how the pandemic is affecting the economy and our everyday lives.
COVID-19 is not the only challenge facing our nation in 2020. We continue to confront racial injustice, a major economic crisis, and the undeniable effects of anthropogenic climate change. Several stories in these pages address how research and scholarship at Princeton are helping to address some of these challenges.
The Princeton spirit is indomitable. Our creativity and resourcefulness, not to mention our intellectual leadership, mean that the brilliant researcher, even if working at home due to COVID-19 public health restrictions, is never alone. Princeton is many brilliant researchers working together, for new knowledge, in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.
Pablo Debenedetti Dean for Research Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering