At the tail end of the pandemic: a tribute to the scientists on whose shoulders we stand

Swedish introduction:

Jag avslutade gårdagens blogg om att pandemin har blivit valets bortglömda fråga så här:

Om inte förutsättningarna för grundforskning och klinisk forskning kommer upp som en viktig valfråga så måste de bli en av de viktigaste frågorna for politiker när valet väl är över.  

I inlägget använde jag lärdomarna från pandemin som utgångspunkt för en diskussion om forskningens och universitetens betydelse. I den här bloggen tänker jag utveckla de här tankarna vidare – nu på engelska.

If there was ever any doubt as to what universities are good for, we should look to what  happened during the current COVID-19 pandemic. When facing this unknown and deadly disease, university-based clinician-scientists all over the world immediately started sampling and analyzing critically important patient information to guide health care staff in best practice treatment. This happened in record time. In parallel, and in an unprecedented collaborative effort between science and industry, vaccines and new medicines were developed and made available at warp speed.  We applaud the efforts of the current generation of scientists.

But shouldn´t we also applaud the contributions of those scientists on whose shoulders we stand? Certainly, the advances that we have seen depend on decades of research in universities, here at home and abroad. Much of the earlier research on which current progress is based was probably deemed irrelevant at the time. But when the crisis hit, we saw how knowledge from many different fields of research was brought together and combined. Dots – previously disparate – were connected. And progress ensued.

A replay

The history of the current pandemic is very much a replay of the history of science – it is just as if we have pressed the fast playback button. The pandemic has made us look back to the discovery of the genetic code, to the rise of molecular biology, to the development of the polymerase chain reaction, to the understanding of viruses and their interaction with our immune system (the latter being a field where KI was recently ranked among the world´s top ten). These – and many others – are fields that have been recognized with Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine and that constitute the platform for the successes we saw over the past couple of years. In fact, we only need a glimpse of the list of Nobel Prizes to understand why we are better equipped to handle COVID-19 than the Spanish flu. Long-term and curiosity driven basic research has been instrumental.

In other words, we should not any longer say that vaccines and new treatments were developed at “warp speed” or “in record time”. In reality, their development rests on decades of research. Vaccines – in particular – attest to the success of long-term investments in research – and in basic research, not least. Thus, vaccines should be seen as a global public good. By implication, the enormous differences in vaccine availability on the global scale should be seen as unjust.  

Be a reminder

Let this be a reminder for us all. The pandemic tragically has taken a huge toll on society in terms of human suffering and economic costs. But there is a silver lining: it has also shown us what universities – with our curiosity-driven pursuit of knowledge – are good for. The pandemic has reminded us that the relevance of research cannot be judged a priori. The current crisis has drawn on expertise and knowledge from many fields that previously were considered unrelated and has underscored the value of free research as a bedrock for society. Political decision makers should take note: Curiosity driven research might be costly, but we have just learned the hard way that the costs of science can easily be dwarfed by the costs of a global health crisis.  

Back to the title of this blog: paying tribute to the generations of scientists on whose shoulders we stand is at the same time a call for continued and increased investments in curiosity-driven research. Knowledge gained through research has a value in itself but is also the fabric that keeps societies together – in the midst of crises and between. Research does not easily surface in election debates. But given the lessons learned during the pandemic, research should make it to the top of the political agenda once elections are over.   


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