Research in Covid-19 – ideas for resilience and response

A pandemic calls for bold ideas. David Payne returns to the idea of universal basic research grant, and floats a national Covid research laboratory with the sole aim of defeating the virus.

Resilience is a word that has been well used over the last few months, and we hope that as universities and research institutions increase capacity, our research base will quickly return to normal.

But there are concerns that the impacts of this crisis will be measured in years and not months. For example, as current funding for PhD students and post-docs runs out, the community is having to write grants for research that will struggle to be completed with the reduced capacity in laboratories to accommodate social distancing.

We risk losing a generation of early career researchers, weakening our research base even further. In this respect resilience should better be described as an aspiration for the future rather than a description of the present.

The universal basic research grant

Last year I wrote in Wonkhe, and elsewhere, about a new funding mechanism based around a universal basic research grant. The idea generated significant interest and in light of this crisis I think the ideas are worth revisiting.

To recap, my suggestion was that all REF eligible researchers receive a “basic research income”, separate, and in addition to, the grant system run via the research councils, and the QR system via Research England.

Allocated directly to researchers, this would be a completely devolved system, that places academic autonomy at the heart of research decision making. In light of Covid-19, a basic research grant would provide much needed direct funding to support the precariously employed engines of our research base (our PhD students and postdocs).

In addition it would stimulate and support areas of research that may not seem important today, but turn out to be the key to unlocking the crisis of tomorrow. For example, from a quick analysis of the UKRI “Gateway to Research”, the search term “SARS” returns 33 grants funded up to the end of 2019. In comparison the term “influenza” returns 278 grants funded up to the same point. On this evidence you could say the system of peer review was blindsided.

This is not a criticism in any way of the research councils and academics whose work was funded. There has been a limited research pot for many years and difficult decisions were made. But it is notable that funding priorities have aligned with government priorities in a subtle and (mainly) undeliberate way. The government’s own pandemic response plan was focused on influenza, and so (coincidentally) we see that research grants, notionally written by academics free from the influence of politics have converged on this very same position. Unconscious bias seems to have insidiously undermined the Haldane principle.

Following on from that a basic research grant could go some way in counterbalancing this cross-pollination between fashionable political priorities and long-term research objectives. How many researchers abandoned SARS research in the last few years to focus on influenza? This is extremely difficult to quantify, but a basic grant could have provided a source of funding to continue research into SARS-like viruses, retaining expertise and knowledge aligned to this specific area.

More widely a basic research grant would replicate this approach across the research base in a multitude of different areas, providing a broad strength in depth rather than an “eggs in one basket” approach.

A national Covid research laboratory

Overall the UK scientific response has been excellent, and something which quite rightly deserves to be called world leading. From the rapid development of vaccines and new treatments – the discovery that the steroid dexamethasone is effective in treating the sickest of patients, markedly reducing deaths in ICU’s – to engineering low cost breathing aids and rapid testing instrumentation.

It is a testament to what can be achieved during this pandemic, throughout our geographically scattered and (due to necessary social distancing restrictions) quite isolated – in the sense of intangible benefits of in-person collaboration – universities, research institutions and industry.

One potential issue could be the rapid rise of cases of Covid-19 on university campuses that has the potential to impact the vital research taking place there, as we fulfil our teaching obligations to returning students. This could jeopardise work into the virus itself, as universities become overwhelmed with cases, and face-to-face interactions potentially causing infection spill over from undergraduates teaching spaces to postgraduate research spaces.

For decades we have championed inter- and multi-disciplinary research and the benefits that arise from this. Seeing as there is no bigger research challenge right now, why aren’t these approaches being more actively sought instead of our (relatively) siloed activity to date?

I believe we should co-locate research into Covid-19 with a much more mission-orientated approach. For example, the Manhattan Project ran from 1942-46 in order to develop US nuclear capability, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, known as Project Y, was built to focus on that single project and rapidly deliver a nuclear weapon to the US military. While the outcome unleashed immense suffering and decades of geopolitical tension, the scientific approach to Project Y deserves closer attention.

Los Alamos brought together great scientists, engineers and technicians from around the world, and by the end of the first year had 3,500 people living and working on site. Accommodation was provided for families, as well as schools and child-care facilities. It remains a remarkable achievement in vision, logistics and planning.

Similarly there are also parallels with the work done at Bletchley Park, co-locating talented people with a specific mission-orientated goal to break the Enigma code. Should the UK not consider a “Manhattan Project”-style response to the current Covid-19 crisis? The UK is demonstrably world leading in our scientific efforts to defeat the virus, and so isn’t this a more realistic “moonshot” than the one recently announced on testing?

A national Covid research laboratory should have the same scale and level of ambition as Los Alamos in 1943, and include potential research areas on (i) vaccines, (ii) treatments, (iii) transmission, (iv) rapid testing and (v) long Covid, to give just a few examples. We should bring together virologists, epidemiologists, structural biologists as well as physical scientists, engineers, modellers, statisticians, public health experts and behavioural psychologists to name but a few. All co-located, collaborating and working together to open up new areas of understanding into the virus. This approach is still moonshot-level ambitious while deeply-rooted in the quality of our research base.

Unprecedented times do require unprecedented measures. The basic research grant would give us greater resilience and a Covid national research laboratory would accelerate our response. In tandem they would provide both a short-term solution to the crisis we currently face, and a long-term approach to the unknowns that await.

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