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Call for funders to reward international research teams

Covid-19 has forced a rethink of schemes that benefit “superstar prima donna PIs”, say researchers

Leading researchers have called for a shift in how international collaborations are rewarded following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s time we really moved to ‘team science’ and moved away from funding the superstar prima donna principal investigator, which is how it works at the moment,” Trudie Lang from the University of Oxford in the UK told a Westminster Forum event on 28 April.

In 2020, Lang and colleagues at the African Academy of Sciences published a survey of researchers in 130 countries on which studies were most needed for the Covid-19 outbreak. While most studies taking place were clinical trials in wealthy countries, Lang’s team found most researchers were less in interested in clinical trials than in evidence for public health measures.

Worsening inequities

Lang said she thinks there needs to be an evolution beyond the scoring of individual researchers by funding grant panels towards a broader consideration of international research teams.

“To make it more equitable and allow others to come in and get a foot at the table, we really need to find a new way to recognise, reward and incentivise team science internationally,” she said, adding that she is concerned that the global south is being left behind.

A project tracking the number Covid-19 research projects taking place globally shows only 15 per cent are taking place in low- and middle-income countries.

“I really fear that the inequities in health research, which translate to health changes, are just going to be further exaggerated by this,” said Lang. “If we’re to spot the next emergent pathogen, we need to have that ability on the ground to respond immediately.”

Grand challenges

Speaking at the same event, Richard Catlow, the foreign secretary of the UK’s Royal Society, said Covid-19 is already forcing a rethink of global research.

“We must now act on this—we need to think about the types of grant programme which will most effectively promote collaboration,” Catlow said, suggesting that there should be a move towards large-scale collaborations in key strategic areas such as global health, biodiversity loss and net zero carbon emissions.

“We can do these kinds of large-scale international collaborations in areas like big physics,” Catlow said, adding that achieving goals like net zero will necessarily be a major international effort and will involve “a huge amount of developments in science and technology”.