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‘Exposure to politics is making science worse’

Image: Michele Ursi, via Shutterstock

Funding, public trust and interdisciplinarity feature in our third collection of reflections on Covid-19

This is the third of three articles in which figures from across Europe reflect on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the research world. (Read part one here and part two here.)

‘Mainstream this simplicity, speed and agility’

Following any crisis, we never go back to normal. Here are four themes that might manifest themselves in a new, better, normal.
1. Transformation acceleration

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated the impact of digitisation, automation, artificial intelligence and green technologies. Can we build on the pandemic response to address climate change? Mortality in care homes has graphically demonstrated that pandemics hit the most susceptible hardest. Coupled with changing demographics, will this make robotic care of the elderly more realistic?

Such multidisciplinary topics will become more important and present new opportunities. We need to become better at re-skilling people to move from obsolete jobs in the old economy to new jobs in these areas. We knew all this pre-Covid. Post-Covid, the timetable has accelerated, and the research and innovation system needs to respond at pace.
2. Innovation imperative

These disruptions will create enormous opportunities for new markets, new economies and addressing societal challenges. Translating deep-tech research into market-creating innovations that scale into major new companies will be paramount. The creation of the European Innovation Council (EIC)—whose advisory board I am privileged to chair, and which has recently published its vision statement—is a recognition of this.

3. International collaboration

The response of the scientific community to Covid-19 has seen unprecedented international research collaboration in many areas. The result has been unprecedented rapid advances. Post-Covid, we need to foster such collaboration without imposing clumsy bureaucratic structures and despite any political tensions. International challenge prizes and trusted ‘lead agency’ programmes from funders may be some of the tools we use to achieve this.
4. Administrative reform

Science Foundation Ireland’s five-point response to the Covid-19 crisis includes a rapid-response call with a simple rolling application process, swift international peer review, and funding decisions in weeks, not months.

By fostering unprecedented collaboration between the Irish government’s major research and innovation funders, we made it simple for applicants from all disciplines and sectors to apply in whatever combination they thought best—regardless of legal remits, programme conditions or silos for research and innovation—and for funders to determine after reviewing applications who funds and monitors what. We need to mainstream this simplicity, speed and agility post-Covid. 

Similarly, the EIC moved within days to expand an existing call to focus on Covid-19 innovations, resulting in more than 1,400 applications, while the European Commission moved within weeks to allocate additional budget and roll out a European Research Area vs Corona action plan. New ways of soliciting, developing and implementing the best proposals were deployed, such as the EU’s hackathon programme and SFI’s problem curation programme. 

Post-Covid, research and innovation funders should reinvent long, conservative application processes to be agile, rapid and thorough.

Mark Ferguson is director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the government of Ireland


‘Pause and think’

For the 21st century and beyond, the knowledge generated from research is the platform for health and wellbeing, a sustainable economy and a vigorous environment. The European Research Area has removed barriers for the best minds to work together and create a better future through Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe.

These initiatives have revolutionised the generation of knowledge and the engagement of industry to translate knowledge into the economy. It is vital for the UK, post-Brexit, to be able to participate fully.

The coronavirus pandemic has given us time to pause and think about the value of collaboration, how we need to communicate and translate knowledge into policy, and how we might be more proactive and innovative in preparing ourselves against future global shocks. It is clear that social science must be at the forefront of our thinking.

We also need to exploit the potential of artificial intelligence, encryption and data-sharing for health purposes, and to create transport, manufacturing and energy generation that doesn’t damage our environment.

The biggest change I would like to see is the wholehearted and systemic adoption of systems thinking in how we approach research and future challenges.

With this in mind, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, has launched the Post-Covid-19 Futures Commission to offer thinking around a better future for all.

Anne Glover is president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the former chief scientific adviser to the president of the European Commission


‘Scientists are getting drawn into messy, polarised debates’

My hope: that the European Commission shows leadership in working for a knowledge-led recovery by making significant investments in research capacity and capability. The Commission has been all but invisible the past few months, as member states have understandably taken centre stage during the crisis. The recovery will be an opportunity for Europe to show how it can add value.

European researchers and research infrastructures are playing a key role in understanding and responding to the virus. The value of excellent pan-European research has never been clearer. Increased support for research and innovation, including for the infrastructures that act as nodes of collaboration and data, should be a central pillar of any EU post-pandemic investment plan.

My fear: at the start of the crisis, I was hopeful that traditional political arguments were giving way to a debate with a more nuanced understanding of risk and scientific uncertainties. But while some polls show trust in science at an all-time high, others show it eroding as scientists get drawn into messy, polarised debates.

Much of the media has shown itself incapable of thinking in anything other than political terms. This has seen scientists pushed into roles either as defenders or critics of government. Rather than exposure to science making politics better, it seems that exposure to politics is making science worse.

We are not quite at the point where epidemiologists are being prosecuted for manslaughter for failing to have insisted on stronger measures back in February, like the six geologists in Italy tried for their statements prior to the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. But some countries, including the UK, seem not so far away from that point either.

John Womersley is director-general of the European Spallation Source in Lund, Sweden


‘Global challenges need a research portfolio’

The Covid-19 crisis has once again shown policymakers the value of scientific advice, and of open channels for accessing ethically sound evidence. At the same time, the scientific community must take responsibility to ensure that relevant work is more visible.

The crisis has showcased what those working in science, technology and innovation see every day. Science advice is just the visible tip of a complex network of underlying research. Our ability to respond to a current crisis relies on investments from national and international programmes made over decades.

The pandemic shows both the best and worst of politics and policy. At its worst, research becomes a competition between nations to find a vaccine or treatments. We should focus on our better instincts and remember that science is fundamentally collaborative and that truly global challenges need a research portfolio approach. While some scientists focus on identifying a vaccine, for example, others are working out who could benefit from it most, or how it can be accessible and affordable for all who need it.

The challenge is not just about interdisciplinarity, where different fields addressing the same issue blend their findings, but rather to see a problem from a multilateral perspective and provide multiple solutions. Social science and humanities researchers have created a database called the World Pandemic Research Network of projects that contribute to solutions to different aspects of the crisis, from social, historical, anthropological, economic and other perspectives.

Gabi Lombardo is director of the European Alliance for the Social Sciences and HumanitiesJon Deer is director of research at City University, London, and treasurer of the EASSH

A version if this article also appeared in Research Europe