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Science matters: a look at the importance of research, international collaboration and the impact of Brexit

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Science matters: a look at the importance of research, international collaboration and the impact of Brexit

It’s a strange time we’re living in when one of the most recognised faces on TV in Scotland is the Scottish Government’s national clinical director, Jason Leitch.

It’s a strange time we’re living in when members of the public with no background in science or medicine whatsoever are discussing R numbers and comparing global infection rates.

And it’s a strange, if rather bleak, time we’re living in when children are chasing each other around the playground, shouting “corona” when they catch each other instead of the more traditional “it”.

But this is now everyday life after COVID-19 turned our world upside down.

As we face a long winter with further restrictions, the closure of businesses, the prospect of a “digital Christmas” and increasing frustration from the public, it’s no surprise that people are looking for answers more than ever before about when this will all be over.

The answers, of course, lie in the science.

The pandemic has thrust science into the global spotlight, with the eyes of the world on those working tirelessly to find a vaccine that will allow life to get back to normal.

Despite the fact we still don’t know categorically that a viable vaccine is even an option, the possibility alone gives hope – and hope is what people are relying on at the moment.

But has the COVID-19 pandemic changed science at all?

“In general, science is always working on vaccines and viruses and whatever comes up in that respect, so I think the scientific landscape hasn’t necessarily changed. It’s more like there’s a new problem that has appeared”, says Dr Niki Vermeulen, senior lecturer in history/sociology of science at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Political Science.

“And people have been expecting this for quite a long time, that there would be some kind of pandemic at some point, and of course we know historically that they have been there regularly and there’s been all kinds of simulations about when the next one would be appearing. And then it kind of disappeared a little bit from the policy agenda in terms of being one of the bigger risks and then of course something hits.

“I think what it does do with science is it concentrates activities and people working on relevant things. It’s much broader than only working on a vaccine, it’s about understanding what the virus does also within a society.

“The whole research community are focusing on this so it makes the scale of the collaboration a lot more intense because normally with vaccination development you would see the one company doing the one vaccine and another company doing another one, but now they are all working on a vaccine for the same problem. That is really a different scale.

“If you have many more people working on various ways to try to intervene in the process of this virus interacting with the person getting ill, then you have more chance that you find one that works.”

She adds: “Next to people working on the virus, there’s also people working on resilience of society and nature and thinking about how can we come to more sustainable ways of living. There’s also lots of research involved in that.

“The Royal Society of Edinburgh has a committee – Scotland after COVID – so that’s really thinking about how to rebuild society. Do we want to go back to the same one or do we want a different, more sustainable one? That’s all very big on the agenda.”

Scotland is already leading the way on sustainable projects and working towards ambitious carbon neutral targets.

There’s a really rich ecology here in terms of research and that goes across all the topics

The Scottish Government has set itself a legally-binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045, five years ahead of the date set for the UK as a whole.

“Scotland is tackling climate change and there’s huge investment in renewable energy and this is one of the things Scotland is really advanced in,” says Vermeulen. “This is the transition from being an oil economy towards renewables and this is going quite well, I would say, so this is important to continue.

“There’s so much research and science innovation going on here. There’s a really rich ecology here in terms of research and that goes across all the topics. In that sense, Scotland is large enough to have enough people to cover all the fields but at the same time it’s also still small enough to be able to get an overview.

“The scale is much more local so in terms of thinking about spaces for collaboration and what are ideal research environments, you want to have diversity but at the same time you also want to be able to easily connect with people, to travel somewhere. In Scotland, it’s easier to do that and see your colleagues. Combined with that international outlook, you can still work with people in other countries. I’m just really hoping we can keep those connections to Europe.”

One big change for scientists and researchers is funding, with global efforts ensuring there is enough money to pay for the current research.

In the summer, the World Health Organization detailed plans for its Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which was launched at the end of April to support the development of vaccines, treatments and tests.

To fund this, the WHO called for $31.3bn – around £24bn – of investment.

Right from the beginning of the pandemic, the UK Government has thrown its finances at finding a vaccine.

Back in March, when the scale of the pandemic was unfolding, Boris Johnson announced the UK would contribute another £210m towards efforts to find a vaccine, marking the largest single contribution by any country. The funding ensured British scientists and researchers continue to lead the global fight against the virus and brought the UK’s total contribution at the time up to £544m.

Will this funding commitment to science and research become a legacy of coronavirus?

“That’s a really good question and ideally I would want to say yes – I think that’s what everyone hopes for,” says Vermeulen. “But the problem that we’re now facing is that there’s also a huge economic impact [as a result of coronavirus] and probably we will see that across society, so that’s also of course hitting research budgets.

“So this is a big question – where does our society need to invest in? I would put my money on the science but you don’t know what the governments are doing and at the moment, the UK government is also in the process of Brexit and that will have a huge impact potentially on scientific funding because it’s all very much depending on international collaboration.”

Brexit, of course, will hit the field of science hard and scientists in the UK already have been feeling the impact of Brexit uncertainty for years.

Since the EU referendum, this uncertainty has led many researchers to become cautious about applying for funding.

According to data in the science journal Nature, UK participation as a lead coordinator in EU multilateral projects through Horizon 2020 has significantly reduced since 2016, as has applications to Scottish universities from potential PhD students from Europe.

In his ministerial statement to Holyrood on the threat of Brexit to science and research, Richard Lochhead, Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, painted a bleak picture.

“Across Scotland’s universities and colleges and research institutions, students and staff from the EU are making an enormous contribution to Scotland and our global reputation for excellence,” he said.

“Many institutions benefit greatly from EU membership – for example, 19 per cent of students at the University of Aberdeen alone are EU nationals.

“But as a result of Brexit, during my various visits, I am hearing similar messages everywhere I go.

“I’m hearing about universities hiring immigration lawyers, about staff in tears, about staff and students feeling less welcome, uncertain, insecure.

“I’m hearing about talented and valued staff contemplating leaving Scotland and the UK.

“And following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, I’m hearing everywhere about the short and long term threat Brexit poses to Scotland’s research base, to funding, to our international standing and our influence and our reputation for science, research and innovation and educational excellence.”

Brexit is a harsh blow to the sector, particularly when it is at the centre of a global war, and the fact that science and research holds the key to a return to normal life is undeniable.

But perhaps  COVID’s legacy will simply be that: a greater understanding and appreciation that science is there to help improve life for everyone.

“It’s showing the importance of their work,” agrees Vermeulen. “It adds a little bit to their work in terms of people being more interested in it and so this helps.

A lot of scientists as you can now see are doing policy work, working with policymakers, you see them on television so that’s all part of public engagement

“On the one hand, as a researcher you need funding to do your work so there’s more funding available for COVID-related research. And then of course the stakes are quite high, there’s a lot of competition going on between these teams. Science can be quite competitive.”

Vermeulen also accepts that there has been an ongoing “fight” between science and certain parts of society.

“I think that’s definitely there and there are very extreme cases of people being quite anti-science and of course people see the science and even those who are anti-vax would still go to their doctor if they get something,” she says. “Our whole lives are entangled with science, we can have this conversation because we have communication technology. It’s hard these days for anyone not to have scientific or technological lives.

“But it’s important for research to include people in the process. A lot of scientists as you can now see are doing policy work, working with policymakers, you see them on television so that’s all part of public engagement.”

And that is a very important point. What the current pandemic has shown is the relationship between science and policy, perfectly illustrated by televised briefings with Boris Johnson and Professor Chris Witty, or Nicola Sturgeon flanked by Professor Jason Leitch and Dr Gregor Smith.

Politicians have often been heard during the pandemic telling the public that all their decisions have been made as a result of scientific evidence in an effort to gain trust, respect and keep politics out of the crisis.

But the head of the Royal Society was recently forced to issue a warning that scientists must be allowed to take independent decisions without fear of recriminations after a cabinet minister appeared to blame “wrong” science for mistakes made in tackling the pandemic.

The UK’s work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, made the comments while being challenged on the government’s response to the crisis, including what was done – or not done – to protect care homes. She told Sky News: “If the science was wrong, advice at the time was wrong, I’m not surprised if people will then think we then made a wrong decision.”

Sir Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, said: “The one thing that should not happen is if scientists feel that by giving very frank advice, they’re somehow going to be penalised or blamed later.

“That will inhibit them from being very frank and you don’t want to inhibit frankness from scientists, because you really want to know what is their best estimate of what’s going on at the moment.” 

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