Seven months after the first reported cases of COVID-19, the pandemic has disrupted every aspect of life, leaving many shuttered and disordered, having to find new ways to communicate, work and care for family and communities.
This level of global disruption poses very significant challenges, yet at the same time has the potential to create space to transform the status quo. This is an opportunity for the scientific enterprise, if we can leverage it, to ensure that we are in a position where we have the science needed to continue to innovate and meet the needs of the COVID-19 world of today and in the post-pandemic future.
In a “necessity is the mother of invention” moment, we have seen scientific enterprises being nimble and inclusive in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. This demonstrates that it is possible to adapt and deliver what researchers and the world needs from science in a post-COVID-19 future, if we can address four critical challenges:
1. Rethink how research is funded
COVID-induced mobility restrictions are revealing a potential black hole in the finances of universities and active bodies carrying out science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research.
Universities are facing significant drops in student enrollments in the 2020-2021 academic year as students reconsider or defer places, with estimates of a £2.47 billion reduction in UK university tuition fee income, and similar losses being faced in Australia (AUD $4.6 billion) and the US (potentially $23 billion).
Student tuition fees often underwrite STEM research activities, so the resources to pursue the research that the world needs now, and as we look to the future, could be significantly impacted unless we rethink the current research funding models.
The rapid response funding systems that have been activated or established during the pandemic to receive and process grant applications for COVID-19-related research illustrate the potential impact of such a rethink. While a typical grant application review takes seven to nine months, decisions for these rapid grants are being made from within 48 hours to just a few weeks. The funds are then being delivered to university accounts within days, allowing researchers and their teams to mobilize more quickly.
If we can identify merit-based applications within hours or weeks during a crisis, we can do the same under normal conditions. The added advantage of speeding up the research funding process is that the team that submitted the application is often already assembled, established and ready to go. Fast action on grant proposals captures the energy, excitement, and resolve of the proposed idea, and in so doing, increases the likelihood of innovative and creative outcomes.
2. Re-vision which research is funded
With a sustainable model of funding, there is still the critical question of ensuring that the research that is funded meets both short-term needs, and can also anticipate the needs of the future.
Support for foundational 'basic' research has to be a priority to enable breakthroughs for the medium and long-term. At the same time, we also need to safeguard applied research that can respond to needs such as COVID-19 as they arise. One way to achieve this is to value and fund both branches of science more equally.
In the US, foundational research is usually funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has a budget of $8 billon, while biomedical and translational applied research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which has a budget of $41 billion. NIH has 5 times the amount of funds than the NSF. What message does that send about the kind of research that is valued, and that researchers and institutions should focus on? Levelling the appropriation of funds could transform the scientific enterprise, and result in more groundbreaking transdisciplinary discoveries, like the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology that has revolutionized modern biology.
The possibility for this funding model is pivotal to the pace, scope, and impact of the scientific enterprise, as evidenced in the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Finding a vaccine requires both foundational and applied knowledge. For example, without the foundational work of sequencing and annotating genome sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to identify mutations and druggable targets, creating a viable vaccine would be an almost insurmountable task .
3. Re-imagine scientific publishing models
Because every day counts during a pandemic, scientific data is more time-sensitive than ever. Researchers, journalists, business leaders and politicians have been turning to self-published pre-print manuscripts to identify important new data.
Pre-prints, while not peer-reviewed publications, have the advantage of dispensing real-time results faster than traditional peer-reviewed methods that risk being out-of-date by the time they appear in academic journals, which can be months or even years after the data was collected. However, there are also significant challenges as witnessed by the missteps identified in the analysis and subsequent review of both pre-prints and peer-reviewed articles about the repurposed malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.
Quality-control is an indispensable feature of scientific publishing. And while seeking falsification and identifying failure when evaluating a hypothesis are the bedrock of scientific progress, it is important not to introduce more uncertainty or opacity than is necessary by short-circuiting the review system.
The publishing community has been praised for providing free and open access to peer-reviewed COVID-19 related research that would normally exist behind a paywall. As we imagine our post-pandemic future, we should ask the question, can and should all research be open-access for anyone to see? If we want to speed up how science is done and make its findings truly transparent, there is a compelling argument to move to open-access models that are sustainable for both research teams and the publishers
COVID-19 has precipitated the reach and accessibility of preprint servers such as bioRxiv and medRxiv. This newfound access to scientific publishing will cause ripples in the post-pandemic world, as new audiences are created with a demand for open-access science.
4. Reconsider how we communicate science
There has been real cause for optimism in the way that COVID-19 has resulted in a much more high-profile integration of science, society, and - in some cases - policies that governments around the world have adopted to tackle the spread of the virus within their borders.
These fertile outgrowths need to be nurtured. Going forward, we need to be mindful that what science is understood to be and what it is used for can come down to something as simple as how it is communicated. If we want to have the best science woven into evidence-based decision-making in government, policy, industry, business and among the broader public, the scientific community has to train researchers consistently to be excellent communicators of their work and of the contribution it makes to society.
Programmes and opportunities for scientists to engage more broadly beyond academia exist, but more can always be done. Beyond grassroots approaches, there must be institutional buy-in for science communication training that starts at the college level, and creates opportunities for all early and senior career scientists to gain some exposure to communicating their work to different audiences. Dedicated, structured training is likely to pay huge dividends in upskilling the science community of the future.
However, even the best science communication is only effective when the world is open to listening to what scientists have to say. If one legacy of COVID-19 is that science is an organic part of decision-making - rather than just a tool that provides a solution when a specific challenge comes to light - we will have made huge strides forward in ensuring that the enterprise of science leads to the best outcomes for public good.
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As scientists, we are taught to think of disruptive forces as those that can produce seismic changes. The COVID-19 pandemic is just such a force for science. During and after COVID-19, we should expect to create paradigm-shifting innovations to the scientific enterprise. Anything less would be a missed opportunity for science and society.