The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has exposed frailties in our health, social and economic systems. The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of 2019 and its rapid global spread to infect more than 4 million, causing nearly 300, 000 deaths to date, has been a perfect storm of human and physical factors. The outbreak has simultaneously tested various aspects of our deeply interconnected societies, resulting in delayed, sluggish, inadequate and at times impotent responses to the pandemic.
If there is a silver lining that has visibly emerged from the pandemic, it is the important, yet often hidden role that different disciplines of science and engineering play in generating and providing tools for dealing with societal challenges. From provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), rapid development and supply of ventilators and drug therapies, to insights feeding into social distancing guidance and rapid response measures to keep communities fed – science and engineering inputs have been suddenly placed centre stage, for all to see and appreciate. From fields as diverse as epidemiology, behavioural science, chemistry, data science, molecular biology, pharmaceutical sciences, communication and civil, chemical and biomedical engineering, among thousands of others, the pandemic has provided a chance to see the great contributions that the millions of people working in these fields make to our lives.
These disciplines are at work every day, often away from the current glaze of the public, policy makers, and sometimes even from those that make high level governance decisions within the establishments where the research itself is happening. The tools and ideas coming from this work are at the centre of developing societal capacity and confidence to deal with challenges, but failures to deal with the pandemic can also emerge from this same space. The failures may or may not be inherently ‘embedded’ in the way in which disciplines relate to the real world (how ‘applied’ they are seen as being to our day to day life) or may ‘transcend’ disciplines and emerge from the way we sometimes struggle to bring different kinds of knowledge from very different disciplines together to take action.
Among the ‘embedded’ reasons are the all-too-often contested relevance of science to societal challenges; the crowding out of alternative ‘non-science’ solutions; and disciplinary as well as practice hegemonies. ‘Transcendent’ reasons include entrenched disciplinary silos which impede effective collaborative working and knowledge sharing; disconnects between science and society; systemic rigidities from embedded ways of working which impede decision-making and swift action at the times and places of need; global and national geopolitics in the funding and governance of science; and inadequate funding for science, from public and private sources. Below, we explore a few important factors which may help us move beyond ‘science as usual’.
Turning research into reality
Science and engineering are pervasive as pillars of knowledge and guidance in societal responses to health challenges like COVID-19. Effectively bringing science and engineering innovations into the real-world has been argued, conceptually and empirically, to require the full engagement of a well-established research-industry-government triplex – the triple helix. In many countries around the world, the weaknesses of this research-industry-government relationship have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.