Global Research Council discusses the role of funding agencies in the pandemic | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Global Research Council discusses the role of funding agencies in the pandemic Fast-track project selection and the capacity to make efficient use of resources and cross-border partnerships have made funders fundamental to the response to the challenges of COVID-19 in the Americas, according to participants in the GRC’s regional meeting (photo: Léo Ramos Chaves / Pesquisa FAPESP)

Global Research Council discusses the role of funding agencies in the pandemic

January 06, 2021

Agência FAPESP – Fast-track project selection and the capacity to make efficient use of financial and human resources and research infrastructure in their respective countries have made scientific and technological research funding agencies fundamental to efforts to address the economic, social, and public health challenges posed by COVID-19 in the Americas, the region most affected by the pandemic.

This view was expressed by participants in the 2020 Americas regional meeting of the Global Research Council (GRC), a virtual organization that comprises the heads of research funding agencies on all continents and promotes the sharing of data and best practices for high-quality research collaboration, among other goals.

The online meeting was organized by FAPESP, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technological Research Council (CONICET), and Paraguay’s National Science and Technology Council (CONACYT). It took place on December 9-11 and was also attended by representatives of research funding agencies in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. 

“Two days after the first case of COVID-19 in Latin America was diagnosed, the whole genome of the novel coronavirus had been sequenced [by researchers at Adolfo Lutz Institute and the Universities of São Paulo (USP) in Brazil and Oxford in the UK],” said Marco Antônio Zago, President of FAPESP. “This happened because the laboratories in São Paulo were prepared and research in virology was strongly organized in the state with FAPESP’s support.”

In the early days of the pandemic in Brazil, FAPESP issued a fast-track call for proposals offering additional funding for supported researchers to redirect part of their research effort to the understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and treatment of the disease, Scientific Director Luiz Eugênio Mello recalled.

“We’re proud of having evaluated and approved the first projects selected in this call within only four days from their submission,” he said. 

Also early in the pandemic, FAPESP issued a special call under its Innovative Research Small Business Program (PIPE) to support small firms and startups willing to apply or scale up innovative processes and products relating to the disease, such as diagnostic kits and mechanical ventilators.

FAPESP has also created and implemented COVID-19 Data Sharing/BR, an open-access repository of clinical information to support research on COVID-19, with anonymized data for over 332,000 patients, more than 10,000 of whom were hospitalized, and the results of 9.5 million clinical examinations and laboratory tests.

“Perception of the need for collaboration, exchange, and redefinition of proprietary aspects of knowledge and technology has intensified during the pandemic,” Mello said. “This poses several challenges associated with open-access initiatives.”

In the United States, the National Science Foundation (NSF) used its own budget and supplementary funding supplied via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to support a wide array of research areas that can help the nation combat and recover from the crisis caused by COVID-19, said Joanne Tornow, Assistant Director of the NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

The funding mechanisms deployed to this end included Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants, issued whenever there is an urgent need for data, facilities and equipment after disasters or other unanticipated events. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, RAPID was used in crisis situations due to hurricanes, the Ebola outbreak and oil spills, Tornow explained.

“This funding mechanism enabled us to support the development of the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard and epidemiological models designed to help predict the spread of the disease, among several other projects,” she said.

In Argentina, CONICET urged the more than 70 research institutions and groups affiliated with it to redirect their efforts to the development of solutions to combat the pandemic and issued a call for proposals focusing on diagnosis, control, prevention, and treatment of the disease. The outcome was the submission of more than 900 projects and the selection of 64 projects that received the equivalent of about USD 100,000 in funding.

One of the projects resulted in the development of Argentina’s first serological test for SARS-CoV-2. “The COVID-19 pandemic evidenced the need to strengthen our national capabilities in prevention and diagnosis,” said Ana Franchi, President of CONICET, which is linked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.

To strengthen Argentina’s ST&I system, CONICET partnered with other ministries in a program to repatriate researchers and grantees working abroad, Franchi explained.

For GRC Executive Secretary Michael Bright, the COVID-19 pandemic is a timely example of a major global challenge being addressed by mission-oriented research, one of the topics discussed by the GRC in recent years.

“Mission-oriented research has emerged as a model for dealing with the big global challenges of the twenty-first century in pursuit of a systematic approach to achieve specific objectives,” he said.

Unprecedented global collaboration

The experts who took part in the meeting agreed that while the pandemic has highlighted inequalities it has also evidenced the importance of partnerships and cross-border research collaboration. 

New medical equipment has been rapidly produced, not least in developing countries, and strategies to prevent and track contagion have been implemented. Vaccines have been developed and approved at record speed by means of international collaborations involving universities, research institutions, companies, and governments.

“The ongoing pandemic is a long-term phenomenon, and is already influencing changes in research and innovation systems, not only in national and regional spheres but also on a global scale,” said Lidia Borrell-Damian, Secretary General of Science Europe, who also took part in the virtual meeting. “The challenge is global and the solutions aren’t just national or confined to any one region. We have to understand how knowledge from different regions can be brought together to contain and overcome the pandemic.”

The pandemic has affected countries and regions differently, bringing to the fore the world’s stark inequalities in research infrastructure and resource availability. Lack of time and the need to reach a large number of people have called for new collaborations. Countries with funding difficulties have had to join forces. 

“I believe the experiences we’ve had this year with the pandemic will change the way we work,” said Phethiwe Matutu, Group Executive at South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NSF). “We’re dealing with issues like data sharing and research collaboration across countries on the African continent, as well as the importance of research, not just in the so-called hard sciences but above all in the social sciences.” 

On the African continent, 17 countries in the sub-Saharan region have assembled USD 5.75 million to fund research, scientific communication, and data sharing projects as decision support for governments. The fund has invested in the development of two mechanical ventilator prototypes that are more affordable and less invasive than the devices already on the market. 

In Mexico, a movement of government bodies, universities, business organizations, and regulators enabled the development of two types of mechanical ventilator in a mere five months, and a public-sector program funded 26 projects involving research not just in technology but also in education, social sciences and mental health. 

“Thanks to these efforts, 437 mechanical ventilators were produced and distributed to hospitals in all provinces of Mexico,” said Aideé Orozco, Deputy Managing Director of Technological Development, Cooperation and Innovation at Mexico’s National Science and Technology Council (CONACYT). 

According to Orozco, networking by research institutions, regulators, hospitals, and business was fundamental to the successful development of high-quality products in a short time. “The ventilators are part of our strategy to achieve technological independence and build a domestic medical equipment industry,” she said. “The financial advantages are also huge. Our ventilators cost 30% less than imported machines.”

Inclusive research

The impact of the pandemic on the challenge of implementing inclusive research projects that take into account gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic conditions was the focus of a session held on December 10 as part of the GRC regional meeting. 

“The pandemic has unquestionably had an impact on our understanding of how inequality affects research. The ways in which inequality frames researchers’ experience and the knowledge they produce have become self-evident,” said Ana Maria Almeida, a professor at the University of Campinas’s School of Education (FE-UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, and a member of the GRC’s gender working group (GWG). 

For Aisén Etcheverry, head of Chile’s National Research and Development Agency (ANID), gender-related issues will come to the fore after the pandemic. “The measures we take will have to be more effective,” she said. “Everyone has seen the impact on productivity among women researchers, especially mothers of small children, but we need data to take this discussion forward.”

 

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