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Pandemic creates ‘double challenge’ for EU R&D missions


Board members ‘overextended’ dealing with Covid-19 but ‘on track’ with cancer goals, says chair

Members of the advisory board for the EU’s planned R&D mission on cancer now have another pressing demand on their time, with many providing expert advice to national and EU leaders on their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a double challenge for many of us,” board chair Walter Ricciardi told Research Professional News between meetings on pandemic preparation measures.

“Most if not all of us are involved in EU level and national level management of the outbreak,” he said. Members, many of whom have experience as public health advisers, are ‘overextended’ due to Covid-19, he admitted, but added that he expected they would do a “great job” of handling the pandemic.

Regarding the planning for the cancer mission itself, he said: “I think we’re on track.” Work on the mission will continue despite the additional pressure—albeit remotely, with virtual conferences replacing face-to-face meetings to limit the spread of the disease, he said. This is not so tricky for members, but the board has yet to figure out how to virtually engage the public.

“We have to find a way to do that in this current scenario,” Ricciardi said.

Advisory boards for the other planned missions, covering climate change, healthy waters, smart cities, and soil health and food, have also taken their meetings online. Members said that, despite the change, work to provide the European Commission with recommendations for specific missions was proceeding on schedule.

The Commission said when in launched the boards in mid-2019 that they should “propose concrete targets and timelines for each mission by the end of 2019”. It declined to comment on the apparent delay, but Research Professional News understands the boards were encouraged to make recommendations by early 2020, but given more time if needed.

“We are really moving quite fast and in a very good direction—especially in how to support cities to become leaders and stewards of the transition processes needed” for climate neutrality, said Martin Russ, a member of the climate neutral and smart cities mission area advisory board.

He said the board’s next steps are “heavily focusing on drafting a contract” for the pilot cities that will be the first to test new climate initiatives.

At least one mission board member thinks the pandemic lends new importance to his mission’s work.

“Considering the reality of pandemic diseases, it’s even more important to have a healthy soil and food system in the EU and on a larger scale,” said Alfred Grand, a member of the soil health and food mission.

He said that all conferences and meetings for his board had been cancelled to the end of April, something he sees as a “good decision” but “not a reason to delay work”. The soil board is currently working on a roadmap, he said, with plans to create three pillars, on research, implementation and public engagement.