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Science council calls for ‘system reboot’ after pandemic


Reforms demanded to boost digitalisation and protect quality research from future crises

The German Council of Science and Humanities (WR), a government advisory body, has called for far-reaching reforms to the science system based on lessons learned as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to an analysis paper published by the council last week, the ongoing pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the German science system, such as a lack of digitalisation. In addition, many routines have been shaken up by the crisis, opening up opportunities for a “fundamental reorientation” of the country’s science system, the council said.

“After the crisis, we should not simply return to business as usual,” said Dorothea Wagner, chairwoman of the WR, which advises both federal and state governments. “The next crisis may be of a completely different nature, and we as a society need to prepare for that.”

In its paper, the WR said universities had struggled to draw attention to the structural problems exposed by the virus, as Germany had made great strides in vaccine development and kept mortality rates low during the first wave of Covid-19.

“The great success in vaccine development should not obscure clear weaknesses in the German science system,” the WR wrote. For example, it said the crisis had exposed how a political focus on increasing publication quantity had come at the expense of quality research.

Another problem identified by the council is that academic activities not related to research, such as teaching, policy advice or knowledge transfer, are not regarded as highly in the German system. This caused problems during the pandemic, as teaching and public communication of science became vital skills.

One particular shortcoming discussed by the council is that the digital infrastructure of German research institutions is vulnerable to attacks—a problem that intensified as working from home became the norm. Digital sovereignty and security in higher education should urgently be improved, the WR said.

Networking and data management

The pandemic has brought challenges specific to health research into focus, such as the need for improved and faster technology translational, and the “insufficient networking and cooperation” within health research, the council said. Germany also has a lot of catching up to do in networking and data management.

The WR identified a need for improvement in policy advice, saying more attention must be paid to different disciplines, and that scientific discourse should not be limited to individual perspectives. It also said that during the coronavirus pandemic, politics had focused too much on medical experts.

The Covid-19 crisis marks a historical turning point: not only has science moved into the centre of public attention, it has also been a victim of the pandemic. For example, efforts to improve Germany’s internationalisation of science and research have slowed down, the WR said.

In addition, “efforts to minimise inequalities in working life due to care responsibilities for children were thwarted”, the council said. “Lockdown measures such as the closure of schools and daycare centres affected families with children and single parents significantly more than childless people,” it warned.

“After the crisis, we should not simply return to business as usual,” said Wagner. “The next crisis may be of a very different nature, and we need to prepare for that as a society. Science helps shape the future and manage crises. To perform these tasks well, the science system must be responsive and resilient.”