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The role of science communication during a global pandemic

June 18, 2020
By: 
Sir Mark Walport
Chief Executive Officer
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

If ever there was an important time to communicate science, it is now. The COVID pandemic has created global uncertainties which require urgent solutions. Although SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that is new to humanity, clinicians and researchers around the world have been learning about its effects at an extraordinary pace. Research organisations around the world have a responsibility not only to fund but to communicate the outputs of research and innovation related to the pandemic.

UK Research and Innovation response to COVID-19

UKRI is working closely with government, industry, the scientific community, and the public to address the varied problems posed by COVID-19. We are supporting UK businesses with £750 million of grants and loans for SMEs focusing on R&D and support, while our rapid response open call for short-term projects is addressing and mitigating the health, social, economic, cultural, and environmental impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. To date, UKRI has made an investment of over £180m for research projects related to COVID-19.

Working in partnership

UKRI is working with its international partnerships to address what is, and will remain, a world-wide challenge. This is happening through global initiatives such as the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC), for example, who we have worked with to analyse data from patients hospitalised with COVID-19 in the UK. The UK also works closely with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), which has moved quickly to rapidly develop potential vaccines through international collaborations and public and private partnerships.

Our strong and enduring partnerships with Canada have played an important role in the response, for example through the Africa COVID-19 Rapid Fund to strengthen efforts across the continent to tackle COVID-19, which launched in May. This multinational fund is being supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Fonds de Recherche du Québec, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside funding opportunities, data sharing is important to maximise the impact of research with countries around the world so that we all learn and benefit from each other’s work. I was delighted to see a recent partnership between the Canadian COVID Genomics Network and the COVID-19 Genomics UK, which is partly funded by UKRI, to share knowledge and protocols.

UKRI has also made a commitment to publish details of funded projects, similar to efforts being made by Canadian research funding organisations, such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). Both CIHR and UKRI have also committed to ensure data is publicly available via a research tracker tool.

Public engagement

Through my previous role as the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor and now as the Chief Executive of UKRI, my belief that communication is an essential part of science has only strengthened. Understanding the challenges we’re facing is the first step towards solving them. In March, UKRI launched an online coronavirus hub, bringing together UKRI’s open call for COVID-19 research, updated guidance for UKRI grant-holders, and the latest COVID-related news. It also links to our ‘Coronavirus: the science explained’ website which communicates the science behind COVID-19 in accessible language, developed in conjunction with UK government and university partners.

Final thoughts

During this pandemic, our role is to inform policy makers and, as far as possible, help the public to be well-prepared in dealing with this new and deadly disease. Part of that job is ensuring that as many people as possible can access reliable information about the evolving pandemic. This includes clarity in communicating what is known as well as what is uncertain, and targeting funding towards projects that demonstrate strong potential in tackling the pandemic’s effects. Research and innovation funding organisations are therefore an important part of the joint national effort to save lives and protect our medical infrastructure.

Though the challenges of COVID-19 are acute and many of them were unforeseen, UKRI was established to respond to exactly this type of situation: one that requires an interdisciplinary approach to deal with the wide-ranging scientific, socio-economic and cultural impacts, while being necessarily global and collaborative in its outlook.

Our job in the months and years ahead will be to catalyse our partnerships with business, academia and the public and private sectors, in the UK and abroad, to deliver ‘knowledge with impact’ for the benefit of all.