Principal Investigators’ Priorities and Perceived Barriers and Facilitators When Making Decisions About Conducting Essential Research in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Science and Engineering Ethics 29 (2):1-24 (2023)
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Abstract

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, stay-at-home orders disrupted normal research operations. Principal investigators (PIs) had to make decisions about conducting and staffing essential research under unprecedented, rapidly changing conditions. These decisions also had to be made amid other substantial work and life stressors, like pressures to be productive and staying healthy. Using survey methods, we asked PIs funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation (N = 930) to rate how they prioritized different considerations, such as personal risks, risks to research personnel, and career consequences, when making decisions. They also reported how difficult they found these choices and associated symptoms of stress. Using a checklist, PIs indicated those factors in their research environments that made their decisions easier (i.e., facilitators) or more difficult (i.e., barriers) to make. Finally, PIs also indicated how satisfied they were with their decisions and management of research during the disruption. Descriptive statistics summarize PIs’ responses and inferential tests explore whether responses varied by academic rank or gender. PIs overall reported prioritizing the well-being and perspectives of research personnel, and they perceived more facilitators than barriers. Early-career faculty, however, rated concerns about their careers and productivity as higher priorities compared to their senior counterparts. Early-career faculty also perceived greater difficulty and stress, more barriers, fewer facilitators, and had less satisfaction with their decisions. Women rated several interpersonal concerns about their research personnel more highly than men and reported greater stress. The experience and perceptions of researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic can inform policies and practices when planning for future crises and recovering from the pandemic.

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