This will largely bring to an end the enormous frustration that many of our thousands of researchers have experienced because of limited access to research facilities. It holds the prospect of rebuilding the mysterious but motivating research buzz that comes from interaction with colleagues: the lucky corridor conversation, the chance meeting with a potential collaborator, the advice and support of friends over a coffee (and even, let’s face it, the gossip). In our research group, we have been stymied for more than a year by being unable to transfer skills and know-how by ‘hands-on’ training for new grad students and postdocs that would normally mandate a small group huddling around instruments and apparatus. Although we are proud of what we managed to achieve in the lockdown, we are looking forward to everyday tasks at last becoming easier, and to begin the long process of rebuilding research momentum.
Many of us will feel uneasy and anxious about relaxation of social distancing so we must be considerate of other people’s space, and some local circumstances may necessitate other mitigations. While vaccines have weakened the link between infection and severe illness, the reality of learning to live with COVID-19 will no doubt present new challenges, and perhaps new opportunities, to our research enterprise. As we rebuild fully our research and other activity, we must also not forget some of the learning from the pandemic: not to spend half a day travelling to a 90-minute meeting in London that works just as well on-line; that on-line conferences can work well and that some aspects are even improved; and that some tasks can be achieved more effectively by home working. This last aspect is being captured by the New Ways of Working programme, which will evolve to be a valuable part of the return to on-site working.
Although it is wise not to give too much meaning to rankings, it is hard not to feel that our top spot in last week’s THE World University list comes at a good time for us, providing a boost to our efforts just as we start to look to the future with more optimism.