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In Search of Solutions for the Future

An international conference on pandemic research organised by the DFG enabled some 300 researchers working on funded projects to engage in virtual dialogue.

Pandemic conference logo

Pandemic conference logo

What influence does air quality have on the spread of virus-transmitted infections? What statistical models are needed to assess potential treatment effects in COVID-19 observational studies? Does the coronavirus pandemic have an impact on the healthcare of chronically ill patients? How can societies prepare for pandemics and what resources need to be considered? And how has this kind of preparedness worked since the 1990s? What statements and messages about COVID-19 and the associated protective measures have governments and health institutions communicated to the public, and what has the role of the media been?

Thousands of researchers in Germany are working on these and many other questions relating to the coronavirus pandemic. All of them wish to contribute to finding ways out of the current crisis and be as well prepared as possible for future pandemics. The DFG funds numerous pandemic-related projects through its regular funding procedures and has further strengthened research relating to the coronavirus via special calls for proposals since March 2020. In mid-November, researchers working on more than a hundred of these projects engaged in dialogue and networked with each other for the first time ever. Under the title “Preparedness for Future Pandemics from a Global Perspective”, around 300 participants gathered on a virtual event platform at the instigation of the DFG and its Commission for Pandemic Research. In eight thematically clustered conference rooms, researchers discussed perspectives on the issue from the point of view of medicine and virology, sociology, economics, politics, health science and other fields, outlining their findings to date.

“This conference is an excellent opportunity to capture a valuable moment in the general organisation of pandemic research,” said DFG President Professor Dr. Katja Becker at the start. “It is important as a way for us to explore the further potential of pandemic research together, but above all it gives us the chance to sit down together and look into the many questions we are faced with from all angles of science.” She stressed that it was not only a matter of engaging in productive dialogue but also of exploring the potential for further interdisciplinary collaboration. Becker added: “The more we know about pandemics, the more challenging the methodological search becomes. So our aim is to contribute to pandemic preparedness from a methodological point of view: the research gathered at the conference will be crucial to unlocking the treasures of increasingly sophisticated methodological approaches that will ultimately lead to a higher level of preparedness overall for future pandemics.”

The conference not only focused on the pandemics of the future, however: it also adopted a deliberately global perspective. Pandemics cannot be contained within national borders, nor can they be researched solely from a national perspective – what is needed is cross-border cooperation and dialogue. In order to promote this perspective, the DFG invited keynote speaker Professor Dr. Sir Jeremy James Farrar, Director of the UK’s Wellcome – one of the largest health research foundations in the world. In his talk, he focused on the question of what research is needed for science and society to be better prepared for global crises such as epidemics and pandemics, but also to tackle challenges in areas such as climate, energy, adequate food supply and many more besides.

He emphasised that in a pandemic, science was dependent on partnerships and trust, and in particular on the infrastructures established in advance: “You rely so much on what you have before the crisis! If you are trying to build any partnerships and collaboration in the midst of a crisis, you will either fail or you will be too slow to make a difference. What you have before a crisis in human capacity, infrastructure, scientific endeavour, trust, will largely determine your ability to respond in a very fast, dynamic crisis – which is likely to be the sorts of problems we will face in the 21st century.” Farrar added that science could not wait for a pandemic to happen to start building trust or offering policy advice – this had to be done beforehand.

At the end of the conference, a panel discussion directed the focus from the global perspective back to the situation in Germany. In a session moderated by DFG Press Officer Marco Finetti, the participants focused on the interplay between actors in academia, the media and politics, as well as on the insights gained by science:

Ralf Heyder, head of the coordination office of the University Medicine Network based at the Charité Berlin, highlighted the “unprecedented presence of science in the media and also in political decision-making” which was to be seen during the coronavirus pandemic. This was only natural, he said, because in an existential crisis such as this, policy makers “turn to people who have the answers to solve the problems”. “But,” Heyder went on, “can this approach be easily transferred to other political decision-making processes, and to other crisis situations? I really don’t know!” With regard to political communication, however, science could learn things from the crisis, he said; for example: “When it comes to separating good evidence from bad more quickly, and also translating this knowledge into information that the general public and decision-makers can readily understand. There is definitely room for improvement here!”.

Professor Dr. Cornelia Betsch, psychologist and expert on health communication at the University of Erfurt, saw one of the challenges facing scientists during the pandemic as being able to clearly distinguish opinion from fact and making this difference known to the public. She also criticised the way many media outlets treat scientists: “At the beginning of the pandemic, many researchers thought: what can I contribute? And then it turned out that the selection of those who were listened to by politicians or interviewed by the media was fairly random – in fact it seemed almost as if the media were pre-empting the political process.” For the future, Betsch would like to see more interaction between science and politics. “We have to learn to talk to each other and listen to each other. And we women scientists need to understand how the processes work – because we never knew how policy making functioned in this crisis. That’s something we definitely have to improve on next time!”, said Betsch.

The Director of the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories in Bamberg, Professor Dr. Cordula Artelt, added that although the logic of science and the media are fundamentally distinct, science couldn’t simply sit back and insist that good research takes time. Instead, she said, science had to face up to the question of how to better formulate political communication and political advice in the future. But infectiologist Professor Dr. Marylyn Addo of the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf also noted the importance of scientists in filtering information – especially in the era of the preprint. “It’s not helpful if scientific data is suddenly picked up on social media that has neither undergone peer review nor is classified in any way.” Addo also called for young researchers to be better trained to engage in dialogue with the media.

At the end of the conference, DFG Vice President Professor Dr. Britta Siegmund summarised key insights for the future of pandemic research from the day’s discussions: “Curiosity-driven research that taps into different disciplines – i.e. multidisciplinary work in the best sense of the word – provides the most effective answers during a pandemic and beyond. Only in this way will we be able to achieve a higher level of preparedness. In order to be able to combat global societal challenges such as pandemics and the climate crisis, we need powerful global research infrastructures. For this reason, the call for cross-border academic cooperation has never been more urgent.”