What COVID-19 means for the future of scholarly research

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a globally disruptive force to our human systems for over a year. 

Scholars have already begun researching the effects of the catastrophe as it’s unfolding. But what will that inquiry look like in five years, or a few decades from now? How will researchers measure the shock to and resilience of society?

Some researchers focus their careers on a single disaster. Hurricane Katrina provided a wealth of information for scholars of population mobility and, years later, on housing policy. Scholars of the Great Depression have charted the effects of monetary policy and labor practices. All of which comes down to: How were people affected? And what did they do?

ASU News interviewed several experts across Arizona State University on the questions they think researchers will be asking about the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few years and beyond. Here’s what they said.

Editor's note: Some answers edited for length and clarity.

 

Agribusiness illustration

Agribusiness

Tim Richards is the Morrison Chair of Agribusiness in the W. P. Carey School of Business. 

Tim Richards

Question: With the pandemic as the background, what do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years?

Answer: The shorter term for us is less than five years. Five years is the long term because things move so fast in ag supply chains. Firms will have adjusted by then.

We’ve been scrambling all year, in my own research and as co-editor of the flagship American Journal of Agricultural Economics, taking manuscripts all the time dealing with the resilience of the supply chain. How are suppliers responding? How are consumers responding? What are the shocks?

The thing about food is that people eat it every day. It’s not hypothetical to what’s happening.

Food retailers have to adapt to shifts they see coming down the pike in the next two weeks. Summer is long range.

Five years out, the big things we’ll be talking about is how prepared we are for the next pandemic and how to set up supply chains to absorb the next shock. 

And how will behavior change as a result of COVID? Will people spend more time in the house and cook more and depend less on food service?

Q: What kind of data and trends will researchers in your field be looking at in 20 years?

A:  In the longer term, climate change will be the dominant issue.

Q: What research that is happening now in your field, apart from your own, do you find most exciting?

A: It’s super interesting all across the map.

At the journal, we have four main editors who deal with different parts of ag economics in general. Mark (Manfredo, professor of agribusiness) and I do more supply-chain agribusiness. We had a special issue and called for manuscripts. Our deadline was Sept. 1 and we received 80 on that day.

I had to take 60 of them because they were all on supply chains and food markets and consumer behavior. There are implications for environmental economics and sustainable food supplies. 

By far the most were on food prices, food consumption patterns, business failures (and) food waste.

 

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Social work

Elizabeth Anthony is an associate professor in the School of Social Work in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Elizabeth Anthony

Question: With the pandemic as the background, what do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years? 

Answer: There are so many things to study, it is hard to focus on just one or two. In child development, researchers will want to know how the pandemic has impacted social interactions in particular. Are kids more or less able to relate socially to their peers as a consequence of so much time at a distance? Of course, the other issue will be about academics and the academic divide; some children have really thrived in the virtual school environment while others have struggled significantly. One of the most important questions will be how are children differentially impacted and how has the pandemic highlighted the racial and economic inequities for children. Another fascinating question is how children will report their own experiences of the pandemic — mask wearing, missing major events, attending virtual gatherings, going to remote funerals and weddings, etc.

Q: What kind of data and trends will researchers in your field be looking at in 20 years? 

A: Racial/ethnic, academic, economic and health disparities will all be tracked in relationship to the aftermath of the dual pandemics of COVID and racism in America.  

Q: What research that is happening now in your field, apart from your own, do you find most exciting? 

A: I am fascinated by the work of Indigenous scholars who are examining the concept of community thriving and joy in the midst of grief and hardship. 

Q: There are people who make careers out of studying major events like the Great Depression or Hurricane Katrina. If you were a current doctoral candidate in your field, what about COVID-19 would inspire your thesis? 

A: I would conduct an exploratory mixed methods study examining how children experienced the pandemic. I would use qualitative interview methods to have the children share their distinct perspectives. Adults think we know what children are thinking, but there is an entire unexplored universe in the minds of the children of the pandemic. 

Q: How has the pandemic affected your current research? 

A: The pandemic has made me keenly aware of what is meaningful and important research. Now, more than ever, we need research that makes a difference in the lives of children and families. I am doing more public and community work than ever since the need in our communities is so great. And my scholarship is sharply focused on work that can have a positive impact for our most vulnerable children.

 

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Indigenous studies

Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy is a President’s Professor, director of the Center for Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs. 

Bryan Brayboy

Question: With the pandemic as the background, what do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years? 

Answer: I work at the intersections of education, anthropology and Indigenous studies. I’ll try to address this from the perspective of Indigenous education, but it will — by necessity — be broader than that. 

Indigenous education scholars, and those in the field of educational anthropology, will likely be interested in a few things in the coming years. There will likely be a retrospective review of the impact of COVID-19 closing down in-person classes for young people. There will be an exploration of infrastructural issues that include broadband and other technological — and related access to broadband and hardware — concerns, but also an exploration of the physical structures of school buildings. In a 2015 Inspector General Report on Indigenous schools and schooling, the role of the physical space limiting positive and productive academic achievement for American Indian children raised concerns for many of us. How has learning from home changed or amplified that concern is something that will likely be explored. 

I also suspect that there will be an examination of what the learning outcomes and adaptations — by students, parents/families, teachers and administrators — were when schools were largely closed. For those schools that have been opened, I think there will be studies guided by asking questions about the long-term socio-emotional impact on children who were forced to be socially distant.

Q: What kind of data and trends will researchers in your field be looking at in 20 years?

A: There will be a real interest in transdisciplinary and transfield research focused on the well-being of schoolchildren and communities. The intersections between the impact of the pandemics of global climate change, health care and racism will still be of interest, but in ways where there is an overlap and intersectional views of the challenges rooted in the imbrication of these pandemics. The confluence of these pandemics will be well-documented and there will be serious engagement with finding ways to further document and address how they move together. 

And, there will be exciting new research on the impact of tribes taking over their schools. To date, most schools serving Native children on reservations are run and operated by the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Education. Tribal nations and communities are beginning to build capacity to assume daily operations and staffing of the schools. There will be a decade of data and experiences to explore in the area that will be worth exploring. 

Q: There are people who make careers out of studying major events like the Great Depression or Hurricane Katrina. If you were a current doctoral candidate in your field, what about COVID-19 would inspire your thesis? 

A: What a time to be engaged in, by, and through the world around us. I would write about the intersections between the health, climate, economic and race pandemics and their interconnectedness. COVID allows an opportunity to have an honest dialogue about how these issues wrap together. As such, I think new work would offer ways to bring systemic and systems analysis to the breadth of these challenges. There have to be multiple lenses on the current moment that illuminate the rhizomic nature of a challenge that has been framed as singular, rather than the complex, multilayered one that it is.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your current research? 

A: My research is relational. I talk to people. I visit with them. Eat with them. Share stories and make connections. It is intimate and sensual — we use our senses. Some of this can be done online and via Zoom, but some of it requires face-to-face engagements. So, I have been limited in new work. 

But, there have been some interesting opportunities emerge. In the lockdown, I’ve shifted my focus to building international, intergenerational responses to the current challenges. Since February of 2020, I’ve led weekly conversations with Indigenous scholars in New Zealand, Hawaii, California, Illinois and New Mexico where think seriously about how Indigenous knowledge systems may help us better understand the intersecting pandemics. … These gatherings have forced me to listen, marinate, facilitate and learn from really different people. As a result, there are a whole new set of emerging questions to explore in my thinking and research.

 

Supply chain illustration

Supply chain

Hitendra Chaturvedi is a supply chain management professor of practice with the W. P. Carey School of Business.  

Hitendra Chaturvedi

Question: What are your predictions for the future of contactless shopping and delivery? Will consumers continue to prefer shopping that way even when in-person shopping becomes safe again?   

Answer: There were/are believers in online shopping and there were/are believers in in-person shopping, and historically, it has been mostly a generational thing. Just like working from home was perceived to be less productive before COVID-19 and now that we are forced to work from home due to COVID, even naysayers are realizing that it does not impact productivity; the online naysayers — mostly baby boomers — are turning into converts. My prediction is that in-person shopping will become safe but it would have lost a lot of its hardcore believers to online, and the numbers this past holiday season are testament to that shift. 

The biggest change that online shopping has done is commoditize the “shopping experience,” which means we do not have to dress up and drive for our shopping need. Shopping is not an event anymore. Shopping is just like going to the kitchen and refilling our cup of coffee. With this move, holiday season is not only limited to two weeks when malls are decked up, but spread over two months, with many Black Fridays and other special days. Online shopping is here to stay, and you will see technology like artificial intelligence try to bridge the experience gap between in-person experience and online experience. … In-person will evolve with a new purpose while online experience will try to become more personal through the use of oodles of data and technology. 

Q: With the pandemic as the background, what else do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years?   

A: Three key areas: 1) The role of intelligent technology to make virtual shopping feel like an in-person experience. 2) The role of technology and supply chain management to delivery products in “near real time.” This will include drones and robotic delivery platforms. 3) Circular economy issues related to meteoric rise in contactless shopping, including how to proactively plan for returns and waste management. 

Q: What kind of data and trends will researchers in your field be looking at in 20 years? 

A: Twenty years is way out, but over the next 10 years, there are three big areas: 1) Individual “customer lifecycle management,” because unlike the “old” way, where we created and marketed to customer segments by demographics — race, age, location, etc. — we will become a customer segment of “one.” Microscopic data of our likes, preferences, age, gender, partners, kids, etc. all will be cross-referenced, dissected, mined, manipulated and monetized by intelligent algorithms run on some very powerful machines. 2) Privacy concerns in the age of intelligent machines. 3) End-to-end product life cycle management for each product and how to build the best circular economy model as we strive toward a sustainable economy. Material trends to create products that contribute to an economically viable, sustainable circular business model. 

Q: What research that is happening now in your field, apart from your own, do you find most exciting? 

A: Robotic process automation where a bridge is being created between biology and technology, including bio-bots, self-aware robots and artificial intelligence. Robots of the future made out of living cells rather than metal, plastic, gears and motors just fascinates me. 

Q: There are people who make careers out of studying major events like the Great Depression or Hurricane Katrina. If you were a current doctoral candidate in your field, what about COVID-19 would inspire your thesis? 

A: Not sure about a thesis, but a couple of book title comes to mind: ”The Fragility of it All,” or “Revenge of the Bat,” or “The Bat Effect” – a twist on the famous book and movie “The Butterfly Effect.” 

Q: How has the pandemic affected your current research? 

A: Everyone can pontificate and we, as professors, are best at it! There is no substitute in good research for “real world” experience: to be in the field, to sense, to touch and feel, and immerse in experiences that make the data real, which, unfortunately, we cannot do while sitting at home or in an office, just analyzing reams and reams of data. 

 

Ecology illustration

Ecology

Sharon Hall is a professor and an ecosystem scientist with the School of Life Sciences.

Sharon Hall

Question: With the pandemic as the background, what do you think the experts in your field will be doing research on in five years? 

Answer: One of the really interesting things that's been happening in ecological sciences is thinking about what this "Anthropause" means for people in the planet. And when I say Anthropause, I'm thinking about the time when we all stopped traveling and cars were not on the road. Planes were not in the air for long periods of time. One of the first questions that we thought is, "How does this pause in anthropogenic activities affect our planet and the ecosystems that we're living in?" We expected to see some changes rapidly, like air quality. We saw lots of media articles about how pollution is better in Los Angeles. "You can see the mountains for the first time," for instance. But what's really quite interesting is the places where we didn't see a change. … That highlighted the complexity and the tangling of the different types of anthropogenic activities and ecosystem response. … Why wasn't there a change between March and April when things were really locked down? And we're trying to figure that out. 

I think the value of these long-term data and these agencies and the partnerships with ASU is to look at the trends over weeks, months, years, and really to try and see this very small signal in a lot of noise. I think that's the challenge. And so without these sensors that are out there in the environment — not only just air quality sensors, but we've got cameras out in the environment, wildlife cameras looking for patterns and wildlife — without these sensors, essentially helping us look at these long-term patterns, it's hard to see this little signal. I think that the Anthropause will be little in terms of the signal in some areas. And there are other areas, for example, like in terms of the social system, it's going to be an enormous signal. But for the environment, I think it's much more complex than, than we like to give it credit for.

Q: What kind of data and trends...