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‘We are supposed to be sort-of-used to the new normal’

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Europe’s research community reflects on the pandemic’s impact and potential legacies

Life moved online; new ways of funding and doing research; a changed relationship between science and government. Opportunities and risks. Hardship, loneliness, sickness and death.

In the first of three articles, figures from across Europe reflect on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the research world, and their hopes and fears for what might emerge in its aftermath. (Read part two here and part three here.)

‘Invest big-time’

Everyone knows that ‘going back to normal’ after the Covid-19 crisis depends on the creativity and endurance of the science community to develop medication and a vaccine. For its part, the science community has made it clear that internationalisation and cooperation are prerequisites for finding a way out of the crisis.

With nationalism on the rise and multilateralism under threat, this message of collaboration and solidarity cannot be repeated enough. Europe must continue its policy of openness and global cooperation, but should insist that its partners do the same.

That policy of openness also applies to science. The crisis has shown how crucial it is that the results of publicly funded research are shared, not locked behind paywalls with embargo periods. Plan S should therefore be rolled out across the globe. 

At the same time, Europe has to reduce its dependence on others for critical technologies and value chains. It’s unacceptable that four-fifths of the continent’s medical equipment and active ingredients of pharmaceuticals are imported from China and India. When European countries join forces, they are unbeatable—look at Airbus and Cern. I have long puzzled over why we are not joining forces in other fields, such as 5G, where Europe has both the knowledge and the industry.

Similarly, while the Covid-19 crisis has shown the power of digitisation, allowing us to work, teach and learn online, it has also highlighted Europe’s dependence on US and Chinese platforms and technologies. We are all using Zoom and Teams. An acceleration and further development of the Digital Europe agenda should therefore be a top priority

Governments ought to realise they have to innovate themselves out of the economic crisis, and that this means investing big-time in research and innovation. The Commission’s proposal for the next Multiannual Financial Framework should include €120 billion for Horizon Europe, the amount requested by the European Parliament. And bailouts for companies should ask something in return, such as a greater commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Robert-Jan Smits is president of Eindhoven University of Technology and a former director-general of research and innovation and open-access envoy at the European Commission.


‘Spontaneity is hard to find’

When the ‘smart lockdown’ in the Netherlands was announced, researchers had to focus on creating digital versions of their educational programmes. Academics weren’t waiting for me to ask them about their research plans.

Besides, deadlines for proposal submissions were shifting and it was a while before definite deadlines were set, meaning I was providing scattered information to scientists who I knew were working on a proposal.

By now, we are supposed to be sort-of-used to the new normal. But are we? From home, I try to find a working rhythm and to pick up tasks as if I was living in the world I knew. But I don’t bump into researchers at the coffee corner who start to talk about an idea, or who ask me if I can spare a minute.

Meetings need to be planned and spontaneity is hard to find. And online meetings are completely different to face-to-face encounters. The emotions, the body language, the chance to blow off steam…they’re all missing.

So, on a positive note, I can continue working. But in a business-like manner only. And in my role as a research manager, the personal side is so important. I guess it is this that nowadays makes me feel numb instead of energetic and inspired.

Esther Philips is a research manager at the Institute of Environmental Sciences, Leiden University, and chair of the European Association of Research Managers and Administrators


‘A unique opportunity’

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed Europe’s weaknesses at mounting a coordinated response for health and health research. But it has also been encouraging to see political calls and initiatives for enabling the EU to respond to health challenges.

There is now a unique opportunity for the biomedical and health research, together with decision makers, to build on this momentum and work to put in place instruments and mechanisms embedded in the proposed European Council for Health Research.

Achieving Europe’s ambitions for innovation in biomedicine requires a research ecosystem able to foster, coordinate and support long-term basic, translational and clinical efforts across the continent. To steer and coordinate translational biomedical and clinical research, Europe needs an overview of its scientific activities, tools to identify and connect promising initiatives and create synergies among them, a roadmap to link research to health policy, and infrastructure for data collection and analysis.

The drastic contraction in European economies threatens research funding. But as well as tackling health issues and enhancing well-being, investing in health research should be seen and promoted as a route to economic recovery. In 2018, the Wellcome Trust showed that investment in medical research delivers a return equivalent to around 25 per cent every year, for ever.

Wilfried Ellmeier is president of the BioMed Alliance and professor of immunobiology at the Medical University of Vienna. Loredana Simulescu is a senior policy officer at the BioMed Alliance


‘Leap forward’

If we rush to rapid, at-scale responses to the recession and strive for security at all cost, we will bounce Europe back into economic, social and environmental unsustainability. I hope that Europe will be bold enough to leap forward and accelerate the transition to sustainable well-being.

This will require working with citizens on creating a joint vision for research and innovation based on eco-sufficiency and the Sustainable Development Goals. It also demands that researchers go beyond their comfort zone and embrace truly interdisciplinary research, disruptive multi-stakeholder collaborations and community-owned local experimentation.

Céline Charveriat is the executive director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy