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COVID-19 response demands better use of science and technology – UN DESA

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with around 2.5 million confirmed cases so far, requires a far more collaborative relationship between scientists and policymakers, and the fruits of scientific research, including potential vaccines, must be shared universally, says the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day.

Liu Zhenmin UN DESA
Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA)

A UN DESA policy brief finds that there is vast room for improvement in the way the world harnesses science and technology to resolve global challenges, such as the COVID‑19 pandemic. The policy brief’s recommendations address the pandemic recovery and contributions of science towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The recommendations include a call for strengthened use of science in policy, building public trust in science, ensuring “open science,” universal access to solutions, and for faster action in response to scientific findings.

According to the brief, scientific assessments on COVID-19 are similar around the world but the time and manner of response vary considerably across countries. There is a need to reassess the functioning of science-policy interface systems, where they exist; and to build them up where they are weak or non-existent, in order to preserve public trust in science and government.

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Public trust in science is essential for science-based policies to succeed. Where public trust is high, clear and direct – and where incorrect and damaging information is effectively countered – communications from scientists are likely to be most effective.

In the case of COVID-19, all individuals must trust the scientific guidance if they are to alter their behavior and lower the rates of transmission. For instance, the phrase “flatten the curve” has proven effective in encouraging people to remain indoors to limit the spread.

According to the brief, the pace of scientific discovery has been accelerated by advances in “open science,” including by publishing research without paid subscription barriers, and by sharing research and data early. For example, early public online sharing of the genome of the virus by scientists in China allowed researchers in Germany to rapidly build polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based testing kits that were then made available around the world by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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But the results of “open science” need to lead toward universal access to solutions. The need for a vaccine is global, but fair and equitable access is not a given. One of the most important functions of the science-policy-society interface at the global level is ensuring universal access to such life-saving public goods. Similar considerations apply to medicines that may become available to treat the disease.

Additionally, scientific assessment must be used properly, and governments must act with greater urgency on global scientific assessments. International collaboration between scientists and experts is a powerful way of bringing evidence and scientific consensus to the attention of policy makers and to inform their actions. In September 2019, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board – an independent expert body co-convened by the WHO and the World Bank – called for a global response to “a rapidly spreading pandemic due to a lethal respiratory pathogen.”

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Earlier assessments too had warned of such an eventuality: Taking action on these recommendations then would have built preparedness within and across countries, and hastened an effective response to the current pandemic. Other recent scientific assessments, including the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report and the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report, have called for urgent change in the relationship between people and nature.

Much of the needed actions will need to come from countries themselves, but international cooperation, supported by the UN system, can facilitate progress in all these areas. Many such initiatives are in place but need to be scaled up.

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