Written by Marcin Grajewski,
The Covid‑19 pandemic has mobilised tremendous efforts in scientific research, but also exposed its inefficiencies, according to analysts and policy-makers attending a joint event organised by the European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The conference, entitled ‘The new centrality of science and technology: Will it outlive the coronavirus pandemic?’, was held online on Tuesday 23 February 2021
The event, the 15th in the series of EPRS-OECD conferences, was opened by EPRS Director-General Anthony Teasdale, who highlighted the importance of science and innovation in meeting the new challenges of the 21st century, including the pandemic. Asking the participants how science can make the best of the current crisis, he noted that ‘One of the more intriguing features of the crisis is that way that science and technology responded extremely quickly and effectively to the scale of the crisis – and how the role of scientists and technology has grown’.
Former President of the European Parliament and ex-chair of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, Jerzy Buzek (EPP, Poland), set the scene by focusing on the European Union’s Green Deal, which he said would not only help to clean up the environment, but also provide quality jobs. He urged the EU to seize the moment, pointing out how quickly change can take place. ‘In 30 years we will completely change the way we produce and transmit energy, distribute food and handle agriculture, and more broadly our whole culture. We face truly global changes’ he remarked.
The key speaker, Andy Wyckoff, Director for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), at the OECD, noted that science and technology offer the only exit strategy from Covid‑19. More than in any other recent crisis, the current pandemic has underscored the importance of science and innovation to being both prepared and reactive to upcoming crises. Coronavirus has nevertheless stretched research and innovation systems to their limits and exposed gaps and weak spots. He noted that there is an opportunity to re-orient STI policies and direct science and innovation towards sustainable and inclusive futures. The pandemic has underscored the importance of transdisciplinary approaches to tackle complex ‘wicked’ problems such as Covid‑19 and climate change, he added. However, current research system norms and institutions are ill-adapted to addressing complex challenges like these. Disciplinary and hierarchical structures need to be adjusted to enable and promote transdisciplinary research. Government has a role to play to promote this adjustment, using a mix of policy initiatives.
Paul Hofheinz, President and founder of the Lisbon Council think tank, praised European scientific achievements, but deplored that they are not always translated into concrete inventions. He added that reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential to improving the ability of societies to react to crises like Covid‑19, as well as to deal with longer-term challenges such as climate change that require science-based responses. He argued that ‘Too much of it stays in the laboratory while it should turn into start-ups – things that people can feel and touch’.
Belgian economist Reinhilde Veugelers of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven highlighted the importance of transnational scientific cooperation and the need to trust scientists, something that has been challenged in recent years. On the other hand, cooperation on the anti-coronavirus Covax platform shows how delicate such cooperation can prove to be.