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2020 vision

Amid the devastation, the pandemic casts a new light on old problems

Last December, the first cases of a new coronavirus in China were reported to the World Health Organization. But with no idea of the catastrophe ahead, research-policy watchers in the UK were looking towards a new year dominated by wrangling over Brexit, as well as harbouring hopes over the newly elected government’s ambitions for research. 

Back then, the sector’s preoccupations also included a push for open-access publishing and an increasingly uncomfortable recognition of the barriers that stand in the way of a diverse research community, even before the appalling killing of George Floyd brought the issue of institutional racism to the fore later in the year.

A year on, Covid-19 has rendered much about our daily lives—personal and professional—unrecognisable. But despite the pandemic’s huge toll, the challenges being talked about then are still relevant today. If anything, more so. 

The ‘lost year’, which is likely to stretch into another six months at least, has posed huge questions for society: in the short term, how to shore up the National Health Service to cope with Covid surges and a vaccination programme, and how to respond to the UK’s worst economic crash for 300 years. Beyond that, it’s about how we should care for our most vulnerable, and whether the ‘normal’ way of living that is destroying our planet should change far faster than any government has entertained. Fundamentally, once we are through this, how should we live?

Researchers across many disciplines have contributed a fantastic amount to the fight against Covid-19—from vaccines and treatments, to understanding the pandemic’s effects on the most vulnerable. Their work will be vital in finding ways to create a better, fairer society.

But to respond to these huge challenges, the research sector itself has to be in the best possible shape. The need to address the issues that were on the table this time last year has become even more vital.

As Research Fortnight went to press, the UK and European Union were still embroiled in last-ditch Brexit negotiations. This leaves the door open—for now—to close collaboration under the Horizon Europe R&D programme, but even the most optimistic observer will not be pinning their hopes on it.

Instead, the onus has been put on universities to shore up their existing international partnerships, and, if the prospect of a deal goes out with the Christmas lights, they will need to hold the government’s feet to the fire over measures to support international research collaboration. But, despite promising rhetoric, Westminster policymakers still need to better connect research policy to their wider aims for society—such as through the Shared Prosperity Fund and levelling-up agenda.

Meanwhile, the disproportionate effects of the past year on those with caring responsibilities, still predominately women, will continue to be a focus of our coverage, alongside another huge, deep-rooted injustice: the unequal prospects for BAME academics. For the sector to fulfil its potential to meet the challenges ahead, addressing the barriers facing so many talented individuals must be more than just a New Year’s resolution—for universities and funders alike.  

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight