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?

We interviewed three W. P. Carey experts 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 say.

Agribusiness

Tim Richards is the Morrison Chair of Agribusiness.

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 are 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 foodservice?

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 yours, 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.

Supply chain

Hitendra Chaturvedi is a supply chain management professor of practice.

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 needs. Shopping is not an event anymore. Shopping is just like going to the kitchen and refilling our cup of coffee. With this move, the 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 experiences and online experiences. … In-person will evolve with a new purpose while online experiences 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 deliver products in “near real-time.” This will include drones and robotic delivery platforms. 3) Circular economy issues related to the 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 yours, 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.

Consumer behavior

Lauren Chenarides is an assistant professor in the Morrison School of Agribusiness.

Question: Everyone knows about toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Did people actually hoard food, and what is responsible for hoarding?

Answer: In economics, the way to get around hoarding is to let the markets work. The worst thing is to pass price-gouging legislation.

Let companies do what they want and consumers will be restrained in their behavior. If Fry’s had charged five times the price of pasta in April, there would have been less hoarding.

It sounds horrible, but it’s how the markets work.

Q: There are people who have made 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 the COVID-19 pandemic would inspire your thesis?

A: There’s going to be a lot. What drives doctoral dissertations in economics, especially empirical economics, which is testing theories and examining behavior, is data availability.

There are data sets that are somewhat real-time, tracking cell phones. We know they went to Costco but what did they buy? How much did they spend?

That data will start trickling out in 2021, 2022, and the really impactful stuff that people will derive from this will be over the next two, three, or four years. There will be whole careers made on this … but a lot of the research won’t be directly COVID-related. It’s an example of a larger set of issues that hit markets and shed light on deeper human behavior, like hoarding.

A lot of research deals with hurricanes or earthquakes, and I think we’re realizing this is another in a sequence of events we poorly understood in the past.

Q: Has the pandemic affected your current research?

A: My major stream over the past five or six years is the (agriculture) labor market shortage. It’s the biggest problem for farmers in Arizona and California, the food basket of the U.S.

They need workers. You have to have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people, depending on the skill of the operation.

There was a real concern in March and April about whether the harvest would even happen. Could they bring in workers from Mexico? How could they guarantee their safety? Would they be allowed out of fear of bringing COVID from Mexico? To say it turned out fine would be an overstatement. They managed to get enough workers to get it done, but at the expense of a lot of safety concerns.

Everyone knows about the meat-packing issues in the Midwest, where they were nodes for spreading the pandemic.

At the end of the day, in terms of access to labor and the ability of the food supply chain to supply food, it made do.

It’s opened up a whole new area in terms of supply chain resilience. It’s exposed to me as a researcher that we didn’t care much before. We have a super-efficient food production system in the U.S., and we found out its resilience has real limits.

There were four or five weeks where there was a shock to the system that we didn’t think could happen.

To read what experts across Arizona State University think researchers will be asking about the COVID-19 pandemic in the next few years and beyond, visit asunow.asu.edu.




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