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Inside out

Back page gossip from the 19 March issue of Research Europe

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Democracies flourish through openness, inclusivity and freedom—including the freedom to challenge authority. Rarely can the benefits and downsides of these democratic foundations have been more apparent than during these early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the one hand, it has been alarming how readily and angrily people with little or no apparent knowledge of virology or epidemiology have questioned the advice of the world’s leading experts in these fields, and the intentions of their governments.

MEPs in the European People’s Party, the largest political group in the European Parliament, published a statement asking: “Why do football matches in Spain take place in empty stadiums, while in other countries matches go ahead as normal? Why do some countries close schools when a family member of a student has been infected, while other countries do not?”

Research Europe contacted the MEPs and their press spokesperson and pointed out that, a day earlier, the World Health Organization’s director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the following in a speech: “This is an uneven epidemic at the global level. Different countries are in different scenarios, requiring a tailored response.” We asked whether this altered the MEPs’ thinking, but received no response to our query.

Similarly, countless members of the public, politicians and the press seemed to think themselves better informed and more morally upstanding than academics and physicians who have spent decades devoting themselves to studying diseases and caring for the people who contract them.

On the other hand, this unbridled criticism seems to have played a part in governments deciding to hold regular press conferences, put their scientific advisers front and centre, and publish the evidence on which they are basing their decisions. Without the unedifying uproar and acrimony, ironically, we might all be mired deeper in ignorance.

Don’t waste a good crisis

When the European Space Agency this month announced a two-year delay to the planned July launch of its ExoMars rover mission to the red planet, it lay the blame “primarily” on the need to conduct more preparatory tests but also pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic. “The final phase of ExoMars activities are compromised by the general aggravation of the epidemiolongical situation in European countries,” it said. Asked for more detail, however, ESA stressed the tests were the real issue. Here’s wishing it all the best in making its next 10-day launch window in 2022.

To go far, go together

By contrast, at a recent conference in Brussels—one of the last for the foreseeable future—figures from the research and higher education world whispered on the sidelines about the pace being set by the new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen. A flurry of initiatives in the first 100 days at the helm has left many organisations struggling to keep up, they confided.