Effects of Corona on science and research: DFG in Washington (USA)

Bettina Schuffert, Program Officer at DFG in Washington (USA)


What are the major changes in your job due to the Corona situation? 

The DFG maintains an office in North America with branches in Washington, D.C. and New York. I am a program officer based in Washington, D.C. We switched to telework at both locations in mid-March. Stay-at-home orders were issued by local and state administrations soon thereafter. Ever since, I have set up my workspace in different parts of our home, trying out what works best. Overall, it has been a much better experience than anticipated. At times, it can get complicated, though, when too many members of the family try to connect with colleagues or teachers and classmates all at once.

I am fortunate in that I can perform many aspects of my work from home. It may just take a little longer. To some extent, we were well prepared for the current situation because we have always connected remotely between our head office in Bonn and the two offices in the US Other aspects of my usual work routine are on pause. For example, I do not attend any science-related meetings or congressional hearings in person at the moment. That is usually a significant part of my job since we monitor science-policy discussions and report back to our head office. I try to stay informed with webcasts where available.

How does Covid-19 affect your work with your international partners, students and staff?

The overall goal of the DFG office is to promote international collaboration in research and to strengthen ties between the scientific communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Outreach at major scientific conferences and networking events in the US and Canada plays an important part in reaching that goal. Of course, none of that is happening right now. The DFG had planned to exhibit – under the umbrella of the “Research in Germany” initiative funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research – at the American Physical Society March Meeting and the American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting in April. Both meetings were cancelled, as were other events. However, we are trying our best to connect by other means, e.g. through virtual platforms.

Everyone is talking about the negative effects of the Covid-19 situation. But, what are the positive effects? Are there any? 

There is a strong sense of community everywhere you look, and people go out of their way to help each other. That is very heartening to see. It is not the first time that people look out for each other, but given the magnitude of the crisis, I feel it is even more pronounced.

On a personal note, I don´t miss my commute! It takes me more than two hours to get to my office and back by public transit (approximately 14 km one way). Thus, I gain extra time every day. In addition to that, there was a lot of driving on weekends before the lockdown – grocery shopping, children´s activities and so on. Sometimes I felt like having a second job as a chauffeur… I don´t miss that either.

How does the future look like? What are your hopes? What are you wishing for? 

I am reluctant to predict what the future may look like. Whether life as we knew it will resume in the near future remains to be seen. I do hope that international collaboration in research and higher education will go back to normal at some point and not suffer long-lasting effects from the Corona crisis.

As far as work in general is concerned, I could imagine that teleworking options will gain (even more) traction, especially in regions like ours that deal with a lot of traffic congestion. I hope for an eventual return to in-person events, though, because I think networking is more successful in a face-to-face environment.