The Covid-19 pandemic has brought research and innovation out of the lab and the library and into society. If we can capture this more open relationship between science and society, we can emerge in a better place and build a greener, more sustainable and more equitable future.
During the past 18 months, we have witnessed the process of research and innovation in real-time, live on television. We did not have ready-made answers to this new and deadly virus, but we had an excellent research and innovation base, covering a wide range of disciplines and expertise. We had diverse infrastructures and decades of discovery on which to build, so we could mobilise and respond fast.
Everyone could watch as data were gathered and studies designed to find out how the virus spreads, how our immune systems respond, who is most at risk and why, how to help combat its effects, and what can be done to prevent the many effects of lockdowns needed to tackle the virus. Everyone was directly impacted; everyone could help tackle the pandemic.
For me, an emblematic moment was walking from my flat in Cambridge to a local GP surgery. I was signed in by cheerful volunteers and chatted with a GP who was still smiling despite no doubt having vaccinated hundreds of people all day, every day for weeks. I was given my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which I knew was the product of the full diversity of talents working across the research and innovation system.
This small volume of liquid entering my arm was thanks to a massive network of people, from the researchers with bold ideas about how a new generation of vaccines could be made to the trials managers and volunteers, and talented regulators who ensured it could be safely used. From the manufacturers producing it at scale and at speed to the NHS galvanising a massive effort across the UK to get the vaccine to people. And of course, there are the people themselves taking time to get the jab to protect those around them. This has been a collaboration at a national scale. By everyone for everyone.
Now, as we begin to build back, another global crisis looms large. Leaders from across the world are gathering in Glasgow for the United Nations’s climate summit, Cop26. The climate crisis, like the pandemic, affects everyone, can be deadly, and will amplify inequalities in our society. And like the pandemic, everyone will need to contribute to mitigating its many effects.
As with the pandemic, we can follow the science and listen to the scientists, but it will take more than that. While science will help us to navigate an uncertain world, it will not tell us what to do; that is a choice we have to make. Science will provide vital evidence to understand the challenge and develop the best solutions. Innovation will make those solutions a reality for us to adopt, changing how we live and work in profound ways. This has to be a truly global effort, by everyone for everyone.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen what can be done, what works well and what the pitfalls might be. We can learn from the pandemic to tackle the climate crisis in the most effective way possible, rebuilding an inclusive, greener, innovative economy to which everyone can contribute and from which everyone benefits.
Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser is chief executive of UK Research and Innovation – which brings together seven disciplinary research councils, Research England and the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK.
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