‘We cannot know where those lines of research will take us’

Liuba Papeo is prompted to reevaluate her life’s work…

23 April 2020

On 13 March, the institute that hosts my research team was shut down in response to the spreading of Covid-19 in France. Being an Italian, with family already locked in Milan, I thought I was prepared. I was not. 

Especially, I was not prepared to question my priorities. I was forced to admit that, in such a crisis, many things that had so far filled my daily life could be left aside; even those that I considered the most necessary, such as running experiments on human brain and cognition. 

Members of my team and I began to focus on data analyses, reading and writing, activities that we could easily do at home. From the first days of confinement, the determination of my collaborators has been touching. For me, it has been a struggle. While drafts and research reports from my team kept pouring into my inbox, I felt like the captain of a sinking ship who has to keep up the mood of the crew even if she herself has lost hope. 

Overwhelmed by the news and the proliferation of scientific articles and initiatives to promote every branch of Covid-related research, I finally began questioning the very existence and relevance of my research. What I do, as a cognitive neuropsychologist who studies the relation between brain and behaviour, often feels far from the stuff of the real world. I study how the human brain processes social interactions, but in a way that does not answer any obvious question that, say, my mother would ask about humans or sociality. 

With the explosion of the Covid-19 crisis, that feeling had become stronger than ever. Everybody suddenly turned to scientists for explanations and solutions, and I felt like I had nothing to say or to offer. To feel useful, I replied to a call of the CNRS, my research institution, for supporting colleagues in clinical Covid-related research, by making available my technical and methodological skills for data collection and analysis. I replied to a call of the Royal Society Open Science1 for rapid reviewing of registered reports in any field related to COVID-19. I followed a new group born within the Cognitive Science Society, addressing the changes that we, as a community, should rapidly implement to respond to the current crisis2,3. 

I did other (more or less meaningful) things, including launching a project on certain aspects of human cognition that might be affected by the current circumstances. After all, I study how humans perceive others and their social interactions; there must be some important change to measure, if the most natural human activity, physical interaction, suddenly becomes a problem! The Covid-19 crisis is affecting people’s health through the direct action of the virus on the organs (perhaps including the brain), but also through the abrupt changes in lifestyle and social relationships, among others. Virologists and epidemiologists cannot face it all, and there is a central role for psychology and other specialties in every phase of this crisis. 

But, does this mean that lines of research not related to Covid-19 should be discontinued? Should I really debase my core research right now, to leave all the space to Covid-related research? My answer is no: my research should be open and more alive than ever, even if, as far as I can tell now, it has nothing to do with Covid-19.  

As scientists, we have a duty, and the tools, to photograph and measure the current special events in the history of humanity. This task is necessary for the present and for the future. We must collect as much information as we can to find rapid and effective solutions and limit the damage with new knowledge and technology; then, we have to analyse the facts, write about them and transmit the memory and the information, so that we can be better prepared next time. In every field, a scientists’ job is analysis for prediction. 

Yet, we have to acknowledge two facts. First, we are not very good at anticipating the future, or at least our future needs. Philip Tetlock, the psychology professor now at the University of Pennsylvania, spent 20 years studying individuals’ ability to predict future events, and showed that even experts are quite bad at forecasting4. Human history offers plenty of examples. In 1916, Charlie Chaplin thought that cinema would not last because people wanted theatre. In 1932, Albert Einstein believed that nuclear energy was impossible to obtain. In 2007, Steve Ballmer, ex-CEO of Microsoft, claimed that the iPhone had no chance to get any significant market share. 

The evolution of the Covid-19 crisis may be just another example. Until a few weeks ago, it was common, also among scientists, to refer to cancer research as the gold standard of meaningful research. ‘We are not curing cancer, after all!’ How many times have we heard or spoken that sentence! Asked about the illness to address the most urgently, very few, outside perhaps virologists, epidemiologists and biologists, would have answered ‘respiratory infections’. How many research projects on anti-Covid vaccine have been refused funds in the past decades! And here we are.  

Second, even when it concerns our own research, we cannot always know the outreach and the consequences of a study. We know now that simple mental habits or behaviours can have dramatic effects on the immune system. For example, the quality and quantity of social relationships is a risk factor for mortality as important as smoking cigarettes and alcohol consumption, and even more effective than physical inactivity and obesity5.   

The relationship between social life and the immune system is not obvious and it took more than two decades from the first report in 19886 for this relationship to be submitted to systematic analysis. Research programs are not all evaluated with respect to their potential of saving lives. But, even if we all gave in to the most simplistic view of scientific research and agreed that saving lives is the most important issue of all, we would risk dropping research lines that in the long run could unexpectedly lead to achieving that goal. 

We are bad at predicting the future; therefore, research programs cannot be guided exclusively by what looks important and urgent here and now, a lesson that is embodied in the action of prominent funding agencies such as the European Research Council. We have to invest as much as we can now in COVID-related research – but other lines should stay open and alive. We do not know exactly what the future will be like. We cannot know where those lines of research will take us.

Liuba Papeo is at the Institut des Sciences Cognitives—Marc Jeannerod, UMR5229, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1

[email protected]


[1] http://neurochambers.blogspot.com/2020/03/calling-all-scientists-rapid-evaluation.html

[2] https://cognitivesciencesociety.org/covid-19-cognitive-science-response/

[3] Hahn, U., Lagnado, D., Lewandowsky, S., & Chater, N. (2020, March 21). Crisis knowledge management: Reconfiguring the behavioural science community for rapid responding in the Covid-19 crisis. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/hsxdk

[4] Tetlock, P. E. (2017). Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know?-New edition. Princeton University Press.

[5] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS med, 7(7), e1000316.

[6] House J.S., Landis K.R., Umberson D. (1988) Social relationships and health. Science 241: 540–545.