The role of science and of science funders in the time of the COVID-19 crisis

by Sir Peter Gluckman
Close up view of solar panels in a city, with skyscrapers in the background.

International Science Council Webinar Keynote address
Sir Peter Gluckman
President-Elect of International Science Council
Director, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland
June 25 2020

Webinar recording (6:21 to 21:21)

I would like to welcome all those who have joined this part-replacement for the Global Forum of Funders meeting originally planned for Durban. Given the enthusiasm and commitment for a more joined-up approach to sustainability research shown last year in the meeting in Washington DC, meeting in Durban would have been a good opportunity to build on that foundation.

The ongoing challenges to sustainability are obvious. But in the last year we have seen the range of challenges grow: Covid has highlighted our own fragility in a world where population densities increase, where populations age and where travel has created environments that are global rather than local. It has highlighted how cooperation extending between foundations, governments, universities and the private sector can work together. It has highlighted the importance of open science. But it has also shown where nationalism can interfere with progress. It has also brought science directly into the arena of geostrategic and societal tensions. Risks to societal cohesion have been exacerbated by understandable fear and also misinformation. Trust in government has been in some cases strengthened, in other cases weakened.

And Covid is not the only stressor of note. Climate change and environmental degradation remain areas where domestic interests still outweigh global action. And issues of equity and equality have tragically again been brought to the fore as years of overt and covert discrimination are exposed.

Sustainability is not just about the environment; it is also about culture, people and their individual and social lives, the institutions of society and the economy and their resilience and adaptability. Covid shows how intimately all these are linked.

Covid has put science and scientists on the front page of every paper and at the top of news broadcasts. Generally science has been seen as trusted and valued, but already there are those who are arguing that science has created or exaggerated the crisis and is responsible for the recession. Science denial and misinformation have been rife. As we reflect on the pandemic, what can we learn about the conduct of and the future of the science system?

This is where I will focus much of my remarks.

And Covid has done something else. It has changed the speed at which we need to think and act. Given that I only have a few minutes, I am going to pose some difficult questions and making some sweeping generalisations to push our thinking about the science system beyond business as usual. In many countries, the socio-economic consequences of Covid are creating an appetite for a reset in many policies; Covid may not have fundamentally changed things but it has brought attention to many trends that were already apparent but not being adequately addressed.

In the past, other major recessions and crises have similarly created inflection points with broad consequences. There is a sense that the post-Covid normality will not be simply a return to business as usual. The current science system emerged in the last 70 years, the second World War and then the Cold War largely shaping many aspects of it – a shape largely determined by the few dominant countries. Then the economic model of neoliberalism was reflected into science, with an increasingly competitive system competing for funds, and outcomes being measured by academic metrics including bibliometrics and research income – surely the scientific equivalent of stock prices – with neither really reflecting the value of either the company or the research. And the system became increasingly industrialised with the expansion of tertiary education. The major reason for many research grants became matters of employment, promotion and tenure for the scientist and their need for symbolic capital rather than addressing societal need.

With the new millennium came the MDGs and then the SDGs. So too came Gidden’s very important paper in the last issue of Nature of the old millennium on the social contract between science and society – the increasing recognition that the beneficiaries of new knowledge needed to be the community as well as the scientific society. In that context, it is no accident that when the ISC was formed in 2018, its mission is encapsulated in the phrase science as a global public good.

I want to focus on areas where funders can be part of the problem or part of the solution. First the problem of siloed science.

We are but a decade from 2030. The SDGs remain aspirational and certainly a long way from any sense of achievement. Progress on them as highlighted in the 2019 Global Sustainability Development Report has been disappointing. While scientists can claim virtually everything they do might relate to the SDGs, that is very different to actually achieving real progress towards achieving them.  And indeed, the focus has tended to be only on a subset of the 17 goals.

Much of the problem lies in our siloed approaches. Most funders treat them as isolated goals, independent from each other and within them choose what fits their own agenda. Yet all are intimately linked. The work of ISC’s predecessor ICSU and now ISC, INGSA and the JRC working together and of others shows the many connections between them. Indeed, if one looks at the SDGs and the scientific effort that goes into them one can see two groups: a group you heavily invest in and a group that gets little attention. Yet, systems thinking shows the limits of that approach.

Indeed both the work of The World in 2050 and the 2019 Global Development Sustainability Report highlight the essentiality of these interlinked goals and suggest that we need to focus on the transformations that link them. The data and some natural sciences have been well funded in the name of sustainability, but social science, the normative disciplines and transdisciplinarity have not. Yet to make real progress it is that transdisciplinary approach that is sorely needed. This has a very distinct meaning in terms of how questions are framed and stakeholders are engaged. An OECD report was released just a few days ago on the urgent need for all aspects of the science system, from funders to providers, to transform the way they operate to get beyond disciplinary silos to support genuine transdisciplinary approaches. Post-normal science encapsulates very similar concepts.

Let me quote from Diane Coyle, the renowned economist, from her piece in Nature a few days ago:

Sadly, academic incentives work against people who are brave enough to cross into another disciplinary territory. Career, funding and publishing structures reward research into small, narrow questions, when the world has big, complex problems. (…) Universities, research institutes and laboratories are condemning themselves to irrelevance in the future – and worse, now – if they do not break the shackles of departments and disciplines, and reward academics for policy relevance, as well as basic research. This requires institutional reform (…) High-profile funders (…), as well as those in the public sector, could make a powerful point by insisting that programmers integrate disciplines.

Covid highlights that this is not simply a matter for virologists and epidemiologists, but a matter that has needed a broad range of scholars from economics to behavioural science, from mathematics to communication studies. Only with the appropriate forming of problems, and a framing that looks through multiple lenses at once including those of stakeholders, can the knowledge gained have a real impact on the real problems that affect our planet, our society, our environment and indeed our economy.

Yet when I look around the world of funding what I see is traditional disciplinary and largely predetermined funding calls.

It is in all our interests that the science system does not get stuck in a late 20th century model, but evolves to suit a world that is much more interconnected, moving at pace and throwing up multiple existential threats from a loss of social cohesion in many societies to that of climate change.

In essence, what I am asking is for funding organisations to look at their underlying strategies. Whose needs is your current strategy meeting – that of the funder, the society now and into the future or the scientist?

Human development and resilience are closely related to broad concepts of sustainability. The UNDP has started an important project with the ISC that is convening a broad range of disciplinary inputs to move human development from a narrow to a much more holistic understanding of human potential and well-being. I applaud this willingness to set a common agenda.

Now let me turn to the related issues of redundant efforts and lack of coordination.

All said and done, resources are always limited. The issues of reproducibility have been well documented. It itself is a consequence in no small part of the ways the funding system operates and the incentives operating in the science system. But do we really need 3 million papers a year, many of which are never read? Individual and institutional incentives set by governments, funders, agencies and universities drive this inefficient and increasingly misdirected culture that is reinforced by the inherent drive of most scientists to build their symbolic capital. On the other hand, verification and replication are core to scientific progress and validation. How do we achieve the balance? Fewer papers and a greater focus on experimental design are easy comments to make especially in the case of large advanced countries. But there are equity and capacity building issues that are of increasingly acute importance, especially in the global south.

Similar inefficiencies exist in the conduct of international science. Duplicative activities are often driven by institutional egos; there are replicative conferences, even now while travel is limited the number of duplicative conferences is extraordinary and the issues of  duplication in effort where collaboration is needed is increasingly obvious.

Funder mandates may be limited for an area of science or a geography or by the type of researcher. But when the research is substantially duplicative beyond reasons of verification, funders need clarity of their objective, e.g. is the context different enough to justify it, is it primarily a function of career development etc. Too often the claims made for the need merit serious interrogation.

And when we come to the global challenges, the major funders have particular obligations to society. A more coordinated approach is urgently needed if the existential risks of climate change, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, and fractured social cohesion are to be addressed. Technological change also creates a raft of challenges. While much focuses on the positive impact for sustainability of a digital world, social sciences would also point to a raft of potential downsides. It behoves us to be looking at both sides of the coin.

The science needed for the sustainability agenda, whether we are dealing with acute or chronic existential threats, is complex, inter- and transdisciplinary, and cannot easily be separated from issues of understanding policy priorities, policy agendas and public engagement.

In the early 19th century scientists were largely self funded amateurs; in the early 21st century, scientists are largely responding to the money sources available to them. This means that you as funders have enormous power to influence the direction of science. What tools do you have: co-funding, coordinated funding, ensuring a balance of efforts using all the knowledge disciplines by finding ways to support transdisciplinary research? These are all easy things to say and make a lot of sense. But the reality is that with few exceptions this does not occur. We still see the bulk of research organised in disciplinary silos, biased in profile, missing some of the key issues that need science to address them, and often not well linked to the necessary transformation agenda.

In the end, funders will be key determinants of whether the knowledge disciplines – the natural, social, data and normative sciences – can truly assist society on the pathway to sustainability. I am not naive; I understand the anchors funders have, the interests that provide funds, the political drivers, and so forth.

But as 2030 approaches something has to change if we are to make real progress. The competitive model is important for quality, but over competitive models lead to fragmentation and little progress, closed doors and closed science, conservative rather than innovative developments, and can limit access. You have the global power for science to make a difference. The question is how to use it.

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