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Biomedical funder responds to coronavirus lockdown

AIRC scientific director sets out long-term support for abandoned experiments

A month ago Italy ordered the shutdown of all laboratories performing biomedical research. Within 48 hours scientists had to abandon crucial experiments, wave goodbye to PhD students and colleagues, and figure out how to continue their work from home.

At the time many academics summarised their feelings on social messaging platform Twitter. Alberti Bardelli, professor at Università di Torino and group leader at the Candiolo research institute, wrote: “I wanted to be [the] last to leave, and now is [the] time to go. I will miss my team and look forward to continue the fight against cancer from home.”

Now that the worst is over for laboratories, funders have to figure out how to respond to the crisis. Research Professional News spoke to Federico Caligaris Cappio, scientific director of non-profit Fondazione AIRC, which has been funding top cancer researchers in Italy, including Bardelli, since it was established in 1965.

The foundation ran its latest calls in February, before the lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus took hold. The evaluation process, involving expert reviewers recruited abroad, is traditionally completed in autumn—and is so far scheduled to still go ahead. However, an emergency option consisting of virtual meetings is being planned, in case travel restrictions will continue or be imposed again.

Cappio says that if this is the case it will require rethinking the usual procedures. For example, it will be impossible to spend a whole day discussing together when researchers are placed in different time zones.

He says the foundation also needs to rethink its funding. Fondazione AIRC is currently financing around 600 research projects and 100 scholarships at over 100 different Italian institutions. Cappio plans to discuss with each of them the most appropriate strategy to cope with the restrictions caused by the pandemic and to plan for an efficient restart of scientific activity.

Some of the researchers funded by AIRC can do their work from home but, since access to laboratories was restricted to those in charge of concluding ongoing experiments or caring for laboratory animals, Cappio and his team have to find ways to support academics whose work was interrupted.

“I am a pragmatic optimist, and I think the most plausible scenario will see a slow and gradual return to activity in research labs starting in May, with significant delays but no permanent damage for ongoing research,” Cappio says. “Until then, we will certainly agree on delays, knowing that many different variables might play a role in different projects.”

But for this scenario to become reality, political decision-makers will have to consider scientific research among the top priorities to receive financial support, especially since the economic impact of coronavirus may reduce people’s ability to donate to foundations like AIRC.

It is too early to estimate the impact the Covid-19 crisis will have on future budgets. However, one of Italy’s bureaucratic handicaps—slow administration—might turn into an advantage for foundations. Money donated through tax shemes, which represent AIRC’s main income, are subject to a two-year delay, giving the foundation a little financial security.

“This leaves us some time for envisaging effective countermeasures for safeguarding the priceless network of researchers and technicians, and the research infrastructure we built together,” Cappio says.

In the past decades, AIRC supported independent biomedical research through regular open calls, and helped Italian oncology to excel in patient care and research. Now Cappio shares hope with many researchers that the pandemic will represent a wake-up call for politicians. The crisis could push the Italian government to increase public funding for biomedical research, he says, and establish regular and consistent procedures before the next public health emergency. 

Disclosure: Fabio Turone contributes to the AIRC’s newsletter