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Covid ‘has changed research collaboration permanently’


The pandemic has led to greater openness and sharing, Australian Academy of Science webinar hears

International research collaboration has been permanently changed by the Covid-19 pandemic, an Australian Academy of Science webinar has heard.

At the event on 22 June, academy chief executive Anna-Maria Arabia said some of the changes had been a “silver lining” of the pandemic. 

“We couldn’t possibly offer our research publications free of charge to everyone all of the time. Then we did, overnight. A common focus, with adequate resources, led to the development of a vaccine for a coronavirus, something that has never been achieved in under a year. It’s just extraordinary and gives me so much hope for things like antimicrobial resistance and for climate change solutions,” she said.

“None of us wanted that to happen because of a pandemic, but…to have some of that new capability not only across our region but across the world can only be a positive outcome of what is a fairly difficult situation for the globe.”

Diane Griffin, vice-president of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, told the webinar that the pandemic had changed scientific communication. “We communicate in different ways now than we used to,” she said, highlighting webinars and different types of research seminar.

“So that has been, I think, a big change that’s not going to go away just when we can get together for meetings. We’re going to continue to use these other kinds of technologies that have allowed us to communicate across time zones.”

Concerted effort

Liza Noonan, global director for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, said Australian researchers had found novel ways to collaborate because of Covid-19.

“As early as January 2020, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations had engaged with Australia’s national science agency to start studying Covid-19,” she said. “By March 2020, Australian scientists were working with Cepi, the University of Oxford in the UK and Inovio Pharmaceuticals in the US to commence testing vaccine candidates at the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Victoria…using the virus strain isolated by the Doherty institute in Melbourne, effectively enabling numerous preclinical studies and research on Covid-19.”

Noonan said another effect of the pandemic was closer “collaboration between Australian scientists and our close neighbours in south-east Asia to boost regional Covid-19 response capability and ultimately future infectious disease resilience”.

It had resulted in a generalised “spread stopper” project to “bring together epidemiology and genomic and clinical data across multiple sources to manage Covid-19 and also other existing infectious diseases, including influenza, measles and meningococcal disease”.

She said she had recently heard from a virologist who “summed it up really well when she said that she had never seen such a concerted effort towards the same problem in science, ever, and it was beyond what she thought possible”.

“Of course, there were negative impacts,” Noonan said. “Nonessential programmes were shut down. Researchers weren’t able to access their labs, student incomes were challenged and, of course, people were missing the opportunity to connect with their scientific colleagues in person and develop those all-important relationships in person. But in [a recent] symposium it was the positive impacts, particularly on international and multidisciplinary collaboration, that really dominated the conversation.

“Covid-19 has in effect demonstrated that there’s this vast opportunity for the world to harness science and technology to resolve global challenges for the global good, and I think it re-emphasises the importance of science policy.”

Demonstrating impact

Griffin pointed out that some of the research used to produce the vaccines was “decades old”. Noonan said this showed how scientists could use the lessons of the pandemic to improve the way they communicated the importance of their work. “The reality is that you have to have that sort of continuum of [research] size. You have to have that fundamental research that then has pathways to development and to translation partners. So I think the best thing science can do for itself is continually demonstrate impact. It can continually demonstrate the good that it is doing.”

Tan Sze Wee from Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research said the pandemic experience had “opened up the eyes of all the scientists, from the senior ones to early career researchers, that we can actually do this. In fact we believe that it’s going to change the way we think about collaboration going forward, because in the past collaborations have always been a physical interaction.

“You expected to meet someone, go to his or her lab and then get the work going. But now you can actually interact on interactive media. You can actually call any time, you can share data, you can connect to collaborators across different time zones in real time.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe