COVID-19 triggered unprecedented collaboration in research

12 Jan 2021 | News

The pandemic has both spurred on and demonstrated the value of open science, but has also exposed gaps in science policy. Now is a good time for reform, says OECD


Unprecedented global collaboration between scientists has greatly accelerated understanding of the COVID-19 virus, the infection it causes, and the testing and development of therapies and vaccines to treat and prevent it.

This exemplar could form the basis for creating effective and long lasting models for open science, with enhanced international coordination and more targeted funding of research and development, which would  leave the world better prepared to respond to future pandemics, says the OECD’s Science and Technology Innovation 2021 report published today.

The report warns economic fallout from the pandemic is likely to severely reduce corporate spending on research and innovation, at the same time as it leaves debt-laden governments struggling to fund national R&D programmes. This could hamper innovation at a critical time.

Key findings of the report include:

  • In the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies in countries for which data is available spent around $5 billion on emergency funding of COVID-19 R&D. That includes $850 million invested in Europe. 

  • Across OECD countries, companies in the digital and pharmaceutical sectors increased R&D investments in 2020, while the automotive, aerospace and defence sectors saw their R&D spending decline, as sales and profitability decreased.

  • Around 75,000 scientific papers on COVID-19 were published in the 11 months to the end of November 2020. The US and China were major contributors, with a quarter of their COVID-19 papers co-authored with researchers in other countries. The highest level of collaboration was between scientists in the US and in China.

  • Over three quarters of scientific papers on COVID-19 were published with open access, making the content freely available to other researchers to access, as scientific publishers removed paywalls around COVID-19 research.

The research response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides a potent illustration of the value of collaboration, but the pandemic has also pointed to defects in the organisation and funding of research, highlighting the need for governments to reform science policy, the report says.

Science in the public eye

Beyond their research activities, scientists have been called upon to provide expert input on public health and other policy responses to the pandemic, with many becoming media personalities, communicating science to the general public. They have had to communicate evidence that is unavoidably incomplete and changing, and to do so in ways that promote public confidence and trust.

The way in which researchers have stepped forward to explain their findings has been an important contribution to managing the pandemic. But for various reasons, scientific advice to policy makers and the public is increasingly contested. The report says this requires governments to carefully communicate uncertainties, provide a balanced presentation of potential scenarios and be transparent about mistakes.

Despite the disruption, scientists have continued their work during the crisis, using digital tools and open data infrastructures to continue to function outside of their usual laboratory or field environments, underlining the importance of investment in digital infrastructure for scientific research.

The private sector has played a critical role, delivering a wide range of innovative products to help cope with the health emergency, The biopharmaceutical industry, often in partnership with academia, has launched hundreds of clinical trials targeting COVID-19 drugs and vaccines and academic start-up companies and SMEs have played a significant part in this.

In summary, the report says, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated trends already underway. It has further opened access to data and publications, increased the use of digital tools, enhanced international collaboration, spurred a variety of public-private partnerships, and encouraged the active engagement of new players. “These developments could speed the transition to a more open science and innovation in the longer run,” OECD says.

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