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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Science-as-unusual in a post-COVID-19 pandemic world?

By juliusmugwagwa, on 14 May 2020

By Julius Mugwagwa, Carla-Leanne Washbourne, Remy Twiringiyimana and Anne Marie Kagwesage from the STECS Project Team, UCL & University of Rwanda

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has exposed frailties in our health, social and economic systems. The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of 2019 and its rapid global spread to infect more than 4 million, causing nearly 300, 000 deaths to date, has been a perfect storm of human and physical factors. The outbreak has simultaneously tested various aspects of our deeply interconnected societies, resulting in delayed, sluggish, inadequate and at times impotent responses to the pandemic.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) – CG Illustration by Yuri Samoilov yuri.samoilov.online

If there is a silver lining that has visibly emerged from the pandemic, it is the important, yet often hidden role that different disciplines of science and engineering play in generating and providing tools for dealing with societal challenges. From provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), rapid development and supply of ventilators and drug therapies, to insights feeding into social distancing guidance and rapid response measures to keep communities fed – science and engineering inputs have been suddenly placed centre stage, for all to see and appreciate. From fields as diverse as epidemiology, behavioural science, chemistry, data science, molecular biology, pharmaceutical sciences, communication and civil, chemical and biomedical engineering, among thousands of others, the pandemic has provided a chance to see the great contributions that the millions of people working in these fields make to our lives.

These disciplines are at work every day, often away from the current glaze of the public, policy makers, and sometimes even from those that make high level governance decisions within the establishments where the research itself is happening. The tools and ideas coming from this work are at the centre of developing societal capacity and confidence to deal with challenges, but failures to deal with the pandemic can also emerge from this same space. The failures may or may not be inherently ‘embedded’ in the way in which disciplines relate to the real world (how ‘applied’ they are seen as being to our day to day life) or may ‘transcend’ disciplines and emerge from the way we sometimes struggle to bring different kinds of knowledge from very different disciplines together to take action.

Among the ‘embedded’ reasons are the all-too-often contested relevance of science to societal challenges; the crowding out of alternative ‘non-science’ solutions; and disciplinary as well as practice hegemonies. ‘Transcendent’ reasons include entrenched disciplinary silos which impede effective collaborative working and knowledge sharing; disconnects between science and society; systemic rigidities from embedded ways of working which impede decision-making and swift action at the times and places of need; global and national geopolitics in the funding and governance of science; and inadequate funding for science, from public and private sources. Below, we explore a few important factors which may help us move beyond ‘science as usual’.

Turning research into reality

Science and engineering are pervasive as pillars of knowledge and guidance in societal responses to health challenges like COVID-19. Effectively bringing science and engineering innovations into the real-world has been argued, conceptually and empirically, to require the full engagement of a well-established research-industry-government triplex – the triple helix. In many countries around the world, the weaknesses of this research-industry-government relationship have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relationship between government and research in particular is a significant contemporary issue and was a key point of reference in Sir Paul Nurse’s influential report (‘Ensuring a successful UK research endeavour’ 2015) which led to the creation of a new R&D architecture for the UK: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The report cites “the need for greater synergy and coordination between government and researchers; a focused national conversation between research, industry and government bringing more clarity regarding shared national priorities; and the ability to respond to new and emerging challenges in a prompt and coordinated way”.

It emerged against a backdrop where, globally, there has been a clear drift away from central government control of research, towards public funding of science in accordance with the Haldane Principle (“decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”) and ideas from Vanevar Bush’s Science – The Endless Frontier, where decisions on which research projects to support with public funds should be made by experts in the field. The Haldane principle is at the heart of myriad institutions that have been set up to advocate, lobby for or govern the funding of science to enrich knowledge, skills and technical capabilities and support effective decision-making at national and international levels. From UKRI to Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to various institutional and infrastructural configurations of science granting councils (SGCs) in different parts of the world, including many examples in Africa and other developing regions. These bodies play a key role in shaping the science and engineering research and practice that should be on hand when needed for situations such as COVID-19.

A new blending of local and external capabilities

Our on-going work on the Science Granting Councils Initiative in sub-Saharan Africa Training Effectiveness Case Studies (STECS) project has shown that SGCs in Africa have emerged as a strong coalition point for promoting and lobbying for more funding for research and innovation, and championing numerous socio-technical imaginaries from ‘technological leapfrogging’ to homegrown economic development through generation of new knowledge, technologies and innovations.

In these settings, as globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance, not just of the availability of different tools from science and engineering, but their timeliness and relevance to contexts of application. It can be argued that this should necessitate a rethinking of how and where decisions are made on the allocation of funding for research, which can play a critical role in responsiveness and resilience to crisis. While, as we argued in our previous blog, the need for local capabilities, including science ecosystem capabilities, is so far one of the key lessons from COVID-19, there will be need to blend and balance local and external capabilities, knowledge and financial capital, both public and private.

Africa is currently witnessing an unusually rapid translation of science policy into action. For instance, it took only a few weeks for the African Union (AU) to launch the AU COVID-19 Response Fund, framed as public-private partnership (PPP) programme, following approval of the Africa continental strategy for COVID-19 outbreak. The fund aims to develop new research insights in preventing and curing COVID-19, among other activities. Science diplomacy and transnational science coordination is also pragmatically emerging within Africa as one of the ways to collectively combat the pandemic.

Following the announcement of Madagascar’s COVID-19 preventive and curative drug, developed by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research, the AU urgently started engaging the Republic of Madagascar through diplomatic channels. The aim was to collaboratively expedite scientific analysis of the drug prior to its approval by the WHO. Collaborations on the scientific analysis of this drug are also being established at bilateral levels between Madagascar and countries relatively more advanced in medical science research such as South Africa. It will thus be important to see how this and other examples of science funding, collaboration in science and science diplomacy fit within and and/or cause policy and practice adjustments across the African continent and other regions in response to COVID-19.

Science in dynamic systems

As custodians of national health systems, governments the world over are ultimately being held accountable and responsible for the decisions that they have made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the ‘cause and effect’ aspects of decisions for rapid lockdown and subsequent rapid lifting of lockdown measures in Rwanda and Ghana reflect, on the one hand the impact of timely preventative response in the face of a crisis, and on the other hand the usefulness of evidence-based policy deployment to make adaptive policy decisions in the midst of complex health, social and economic dynamics.

The success of these initial phases of preventive measures can partly be associated with brave public policy enforcement and multi-directional communication amongst communities (top-down, bottom-up and lateral) using a combination of innovations such as mobile technologies and drone technologies for Rwanda. The underlying rationale behind these measures is nations’ abilities to be able to trace, track, tackle and accurately communicate concerning the pandemic, a combination of objective realities which stretches accountability measures.

A new science-as-unusual era?

As already stated, a necessary response to the COVID-19 outbreak is a reflection on and reconfiguration of political decisions on what public funds should be spent on research. Further, funders of science and engineering research need to engage with questions of whether the ways we generate, triage and actualise research and innovation through existing arrangements and partnerships are fit for purpose.

The importance and urgency of matters of synergy, coordination and clarity within the national science ecosystem as key functions in local, national and global responses to challenges has been amply highlighted by current events. The COVID-19 pandemic might also have seriously dampened global confidence in traditional sources of best practice, potentially ushering in new approaches and leadership on gathering and using science and engineering advice.

It remains to be seen how actors in the science, technology and innovation arena will respond to this science-as-unusual era, but the critical decisions ahead may be key in shaping more rapid and sustainable responses to future crises.

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