Viewpoint: It’s time to coordinate the global COVID-19 research effort

02 Apr 2020 | Viewpoint

The biggest problem in finding a cure or vaccine isn’t money. It’s lack of coordination. We need a better way of identifying the global research gaps for this 21st century Manhattan Project of health

Helga Nowotny. Photo: Central European University / Daniel Vegel.

Over the past month, as the COVID-19 crisis deepens, we have seen many promises for billions of euros in new research grants and programmes from governments and foundations around the world. Clearly, the role of science in finding a vaccine, a cure, a strategy for coping, is recognised by all and trust in science has suddenly been restored.

But the key question doesn’t concern the amount of money. The focus, instead, should now be on how it is spent, and on what. COVID-19 research covers a broad spectrum – from virology to behavioural sciences, from fundamental to applied. Especially in times of crisis, research policy spills over into many unresolved questions of organisation, logistics, improving hygiene, Big Data protection and more. And under these circumstances, the overriding problem becomes one of coordination.

To put it simply, governments and foundations are doing all right in finding the money for COVID-19 research. They are doing a very poor job in talking to one another about it, in understanding the problem, in sharing knowledge. In short, they are not coordinating.

Never easy in normal times, the challenge of coordination is now exacerbated by the infection waves arriving at different times in different countries. It’s hampered by the tendency of many governments to go it alone. And there is always the question of who coordinates. In Brussels, which was among the first to respond with extra research funding, the European Commission has set up an expert advisory board. But who actually has the power to coordinate, and on what, is completely unclear.

In February, the World Health Organization convened 400 scientists at a global research and innovation forum, to draw up an R&D blueprint to tackle COVID-19. The resulting roadmap, published at the start of March, is intended as a guide around which researchers and donors will align. But as the torrent of individual COVID-19 research announcements from public agencies and charitable foundations since then indicates, there is little sign of this. 

Of course, a lot happens spontaneously – and that’s essential. There are many bottom-up and local activities that have sprung up, from arm-chair epidemiology to citizen-science projects; from developing apps for contact tracing to producing DIY protection gear. Many labs are repurposing equipment to enable faster testing, or using existing distributed infrastructure to speed up processes. Every funding agency should enable researchers whenever appropriate to redirect and repurpose their project without adding layers of bureaucracy.

Where are the gaps?

But one result of this spontaneity is that nobody really has an overview of what is happening where, and on what.  It is not hard to find out which are the 38 pharma firms working day and night on vaccines, or which firms are closely collaborating with university clinics as they have to obtain certification for their equipment. But it is far more difficult to know what is happening in public-sector research – and especially in fundamental science. We have no clear view of what are the most glaring gaps in our knowledge, in the short-, medium and long-term.

So I believe it would be a step forward to initiate a kind of far-sighted, disinterested, inter- or transdisciplinary mapping of which research problems in which areas need to be tackled, on an international basis. Before raising the question of funding, it should be clear where we stand, what is in the pipeline and where long-term, bottom-up research is most needed. It should also become clear how research is to be translated in various areas and the kind of organisational and other resources required to get the cures, vaccines and strategies into use around the world.

Ideally, such a mapping would permit us to visualise the low-hanging fruits, as well as the „wicked“ problems – those of such complexity, involving so many interdependent factors, that we will never fully solve them. It would need to overcome opportunistic, disciplinary reflexes. It would genuinely pursue the vision of a shared goal. It would be a kind of Manhattan Project for the 21st century, that brings together all the sciences needed for a solution, along with the organisational and coordinating strategies that would work in a wider geo-political and societal context.

To be clear: it is not a top-down, COVID-19 research authority I have in mind. Coordination cannot be imposed from above; information about how to coordinate at every level should be available to everyone. Scientific results cannot be planned like a train journey,  but we need to get started to find out what we already know and in which directions we should move. Just as for global warming we now have the successful International Panel on Climate Change, so for COVID-19 we should then devise a way to better share knowledge, identify research gaps and draw the attention of global leaders to hard scientific fact requiring hard political action.

It should be possible to find a group of persons who fit the needed profile for carrying out such a task, individuals who have the necessary expertise, the experience and the capability of putting their personal, professional and national interests behind and work together for a shared goal. This time, it is truly for the sake of humanity.

The overriding lesson from this crisis should be how to prepare better for the next crises that will undoubtedly follow. This begins with changes in the mind-set, preparing strategies for rapid responses and setting aside strategic reserves, financially as well as in human resources. Once we know what needs to be done, the funding will follow.

Helga Nowotny is professor emerita of social studies of science at ETH Zurich, and former president of the European Research Council.

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