Support for new tech, young researchers is key to global COVID-19 exit strategy

A new report urges policy-makers to heed the "wake-up call" of the pandemic and shore up research and innovation systems.

  • Leigh Dayton

Support for new tech, young researchers is key to global COVID-19 exit strategy

A new report urges policy-makers to heed the "wake-up call" of the pandemic and shore up research and innovation systems.

24 February 2021

Leigh Dayton

Kena Betancur/Getty Images

A researcher works in a lab at the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation in Nutley, New Jersey, where novel therapies and tests  for COVID-19 are being developed.

Creating new opportunities for young researchers and supporting advances in emerging technologies such as robotics and engineering biology will be crucial if the world wants to build resilience beyond the COVID-19 crisis, a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has urged.

While the pandemic showcased the strengths of research and innovation systems in providing key insights into the virus and driving the development of new vaccines, it also tested their limits.

This is reflected in scientists’ career expectations. According to the OECD STI Outlook 2021 report, which reviews the most important trends in science, technology and innovation (STI) policy, many researchers now consider a career in science to be more attractive than before the pandemic, but also less secure, and with fewer prospects.

Providing more diverse career opportunities for PhD and post-doctoral researchers, for example by facilitating a more fluid transition between academia, industry, and government roles, is “essential for improving societies’ ability to react to crises like COVID-19, and to deal with long-term challenges like climate change that demand science-based responses”, the report states.

In addition, the report urges for more strategic prioritization of research funding allocation, the scaling up of international collaborations, and plans to accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies.

Trend towards rapid spending, cross-border partnerships

Since the early stages of the pandemic, government funding bodies and non-profit organizations around the world ramped up spending rapidly and significantly.

Within the first few months of 2020, national research funding bodies spent around US$5 billion on emergency funding for COVID-19 research and development (R&D), according to the report, more than half of which came from North America.

alt Credit: OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021

By August 2020, public and private sources around the world had pledged about US$2 billion to drive international research collaborations, particularly those focussed on developing COVID-19 vaccines.

This was reflected in research publishing, which first surged in April, and again in August, as shown in the graphic below. About a quarter of all COVID-19-related publications from China and the United States, the two biggest countries in terms of output, were co-authored with researchers based in another country.

alt Credit: OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021

“No single country can beat COVID-19 on its own,” the report states, highlighting the speed with which research groups and industry teamed-up to develop vaccines, treatments, and flexible production technologies like the Moderna-Lonza and Pfizer-BioNTech messenger RNA platforms to handle new pathogens.

Industry partnerships must persist post-pandemic

Reforms could also help shore up prospects for early-career researchers, many of whom feel they are in a precarious position, with short-term contracts with no clear pathway to a permanent academic position.

According to the report, there has been a 25% increase in the number of people with PhDs in OECD countries over the past decade, with no corresponding increase in academic posts.

“The pandemic is expected to make matters worse: more than half of the scientists participating in the OECD Science Flash Survey expect the crisis to negatively affect their job security and career opportunities,” the report states.

alt Credit: OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021

The report recommends that more attractive career paths be created to ensure better mobility in and out of academia and other research sectors. This would help to ensure that new technological solutions to global problems are better supported.

Two such emerging technologies, engineering biology and robotics, have shown promise in moving discoveries towards industrial production more efficiently.

Biofoundries, for example, emulate the early metalwork foundries that led to assembly lines and automation in factories. These highly automated facilities, equipped with laboratory robots, are designed to greatly reduce the time from idea to product, and improve the reliability and reproducibility of new drug and vaccine manufacture.

The messenger RNA vaccines for COVID-19, such as those being developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are especially amenable to this approach, the report states.

Five key areas to support change

Looking forward, the OECD report provides a framework for reforming STI policy to ensure that nations continue to build on the collaborations and innovations that have helped them respond to the pandemic so far.

It suggests focusing on five key areas:

  1. Government capability: building knowledge among policy-makers so they can better prioritise solutions to urgent environmental, health, societal and economic challenges.

  2. STI policy mix: building specialized, government-supported entities with the mechanisms, instruments and capabilities to drive R&D targeting these challenges.

  3. Transdisciplinarity: more strategic inclusion of non-academic stakeholders in the process of knowledge production.

  4. PhD and postgraduate training: develop incentives and measures to encourage and train students to seek careers beyond academia.

  5. Global solutions for global problems: emphasises the need for governments to work together to scale-up and extend new relationships across borders and sectors.

According to Martin Bliemel, director of the Diploma in Innovation at the Faculty of Transdisciplinary Innovation at Australia’s University of Technology, Sydney, “Policy changes are only part of the puzzle.”

To ensure actual change, Bliemel says these new policies must be enacted beyond the government level.

This can be problematic in universities. Bliemel says that although many universities are introducing policies to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration, researchers often “fight about the allocation of funding or publications” between themselves because of the competitive pressure from their institutions to maximise both in an era of stretched financial resources.

The OECD report warns that such indecision and lack of coordination can result in high-risk but potentially high-value interdisciplinary research being neglected, as well as valuable data-sharing and career mobility.

Along with previously mentioned policy options, the report recommends that governments emphasise collaborative project grants for public research. Bliemel says such grants are a “major lever” to influence the STI system because they set the funding criteria by which projects are eligible for their support and encourage broader research engagement.

“It would be hard to argue against the need for innovation in sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency,” says Mark Dodgson, professor of innovation studies at the University of Queensland in Australia and visiting professor at Imperial College London, UK, referring to the report’s broad recommendations.

The question is “whether policy-makers have the systems-level skills” to make the shift, he says.