22 Dec 2020   |   News

Five things to remember about 2020

A miserable year, we all agree. But there were a few positive developments worth recalling…

2020

This has been, no doubt, a year to forget. But there are some things worth remembering.

As Mamokgethi Phakeng, vice chancellor of South Africa’s University of Cape Town put it in an interview, “The crisis can be positive as well as negative. We haven’t been able to continue as planned but it has certainly been productive and forced us to think outside the box.”

In that spirit, here are our picks of five good things, in the world of science and technology, that came from 2020:

  1. The vaccine triumph. Honestly, the development in under one year of not one but several vaccines, which we tracked in daily news updates, articles and a funding database, is a scientific and technological feat on the scale of the Apollo landings or (less savoury but no less significant) the Manhattan project.

  2. The world as a scientific village. What permitted the development of vaccines was a massive mobilisation of scientific knowledge across borders and disciplines. There was the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a successful American-German collaboration, despite US president Donald Trump’s failed attempt to monopolise the technology. There was the speed with which researchers around the world seized upon the first Chinese viral gene sequences; the way thousands of researchers quickly repurposed their prior work to the new emergency; and the way research funders, besides pumping out money, actively encouraged collaboration.

  3. Europe held together, more or less. The coronavirus could have been the bug that killed the European Union. In fact, the EU pulled through (minus the UK.) At the top level, politicians, driven forward by the continent’s most effective leader, Angela Merkel, agreed to make the EU a central pillar of their pandemic responses with a record €1.8 trillion budget. They agreed to coordinate their vaccine purchases (with some delay.) And in the R&D world, the Commission’s research programmes – after a feeble start – scrounged up enough extra cash to get new COVID-19 projects off the ground. The new European Innovation Council, in particular, got star ratings for fast response. The prestigious European Research Council, despite enduring one of the juiciest Brussels scandals of 2020, ended the year with its basic-research mission reaffirmed.

  4. Horizon Europe is on the way, sort of. Since 1984, the EU’s multi-year Framework Programmes have been the centrepieces of European R&D policies. The latest edition, to run from 2021 to 2027, was authorised December 11 in another of those late-night Brussels negotiating sessions. OK, at €95.5 billion in “current” inflation-adjusted prices, it’s smaller than the Commission requested, and far smaller than the Parliament and the research world demanded. And the paperwork for it all may not be finished until Easter. But it’s happening. More interesting is a fleet of other, more-focused programmes that will accompany it, in digital technologies, space, health, defence, regional development, industrial technologies, education, and, of course, agricultural and climate research. It’s still uncertain how all these programmes will work together.

  5. Global efforts for global challenges. Perhaps as a corollary to COVID-19 cooperation, politicians managed to raise their sights occasionally above the usual local squabbles to start discussing some big problems that affect us all. Climate is the obvious one: The EU’s Green Deal, Canada’s new climate programmes, German and French climate research initiatives, and the promise of the new Biden administration, will pump billions into climate R&D. Artificial intelligence is another issue: against the odds, the OECD, French and Canadian governments managed to start the first intergovernmental talk shop to coordinate thinking about the benefits and threats of AI. Of course, we have yet to see whether this kind of cooperation can survive the growing tide of technological sovereignty. But that may be another issue finessed by the arrival of a new US president.

There is, of course, no lack of scary problems that will continue into 2021 and beyond: the spread of the virus and its economic fallout, strained and perhaps broken relations between China and the west in science and trade, the clown show of Brexit, and the threat of Trump (could he be even more destructive out of office than in?)

But all things pass, eventually. The human race has been through many wars, pandemics and other disasters, and still survived. Consider how Daniel Defoe opened his famous “A Journal of the Plague Year”, recounting the epidemic of 1664-5 in which about one in five Londoners died:

“It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland…

“We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to improve them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now. But it seems that the government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private….”

Hmm, plus ça change

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