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The pandemic, a scientific lesson for the next global crises | Coronavirus

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In addition to vaccines against COVID-19, has the pandemic allowed certain scientific advances?

Yes. With the advances in RNA vaccines against COVID-19, there is now a great deal of interest and optimism in the use of RNA to treat other conditions.

For example, there is a lot of interest in oncology and in the fight against AIDS. It should be remembered that we still do not have a vaccine against this one after all these years.

In addition to vaccines, there are advancements in related sectors, such as air purification, respirators, disinfectants, etc.

On the other hand, several clinical studies in sectors unrelated to the pandemic were slowed down during the latter. We will have to find ways to remedy that.

Researchers have collaborated a lot during this pandemic. What are the lessons to be learned from it?

We did things differently with the pandemic. All [en science] has been very open since the start of the health crisis and researchers have worked, locally and globally, with their colleagues in the private and public sectors.

Like the virus, climate change is abstract. And during COP26, we wondered whether we can apply the collaboration that took place during the pandemic to other sectors, such as climate change. Can we work more together to have innovative solutions that can be practically applied in the field?

What we also learned during the pandemic is that the private and the public can work closely together and be successful. We see that we can do things quickly and well. But we must also ensure that it is in open science as much as possible.

A man speaks in front of a camera.

Rémi Quirion is the chief scientist of Quebec.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Jean-François Michaud

To better manage crises such as a pandemic or climate change, do you believe that we need the contribution of experts from a greater number of disciplines?

Yes, it is necessary to use the knowledge of experts in all disciplines: behavior, social and human sciences, law, philosophy, culture … For several of the great challenges of society, it is necessary that experts in these disciplines take the pole position, place themselves in the foreground.

In the past, some areas were more on hold and this is often at the 11e hour that they were asked to intervene and help. We should change our methods of doing things, build research programs from the start with the help of experts in behavior, social sciences, etc. They should be the ones running the projects. It would require a culture change, but we need that.

With many of the challenges ahead, yes technology is important, but they require changes in society.

We must continue to fund all areas because we do not know what the next disaster will be. If it’s an earthquake, we’ll need geologists.

Should we increase research funding?

Several governments around the world and the International Monetary Fund [FMI] said that in order to emerge from this pandemic and ensure an economic recovery, we must invest more in basic and innovative research. For example, in the United States, we doubled the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and adopted a strategy a bit like during the Second World War. This is how we’re going to get by.

I hope that Quebec and Canada will follow. We have to, if we want to remain competitive and if we want to train the next generation of researchers and keep them here.

What is the role of the public in scientific research?

We talk a lot about innovation, technology, basic research, but we must also talk about social innovation. We can have a nice technological toy, but if no one wants it, we are wasting our time. For example, when genetically modified organism were developed, the audience said: we don’t want it. We could repeat that it was safe, it didn’t work.

It takes what I call citizen innovation, or reversed. We start from the ground, from our fellow citizens. They might have some good ideas that we could try. Citizens, after all, know their neighborhood better, their living environment than a government. By appealing to citizen intelligence, we could find more concrete, more practical solutions.

During the pandemic, we saw a lot of studies published on the web before being peer reviewed. Is this a good practice?

The pandemic has accelerated the movement of open access to data. I think it’s here to stay. We will find optimal ways of doing things. For example, the media are increasingly careful not to make headlines with a single pre-print study.

These studies are not necessarily accessible to the general public because there is a specific jargon. They must be well explained. Science communication needs to be improved, and universities have already understood that more must be done to give the public a solid foundation.

How to improve scientific communication when there is growing mistrust of experts?

We noticed during the pandemic that our fellow citizens are curious about science. They understood that it is not easy.

Our challenge is to involve citizens and researchers in certain programs so that they better understand the scientific method. You have to build a scientific argument slowly and have to go back and forth a lot. It is not the result of the day that is most important, it is the process, the validation of data. Better knowledge of this approach could reduce misinformation.

I believe in the focus on digital and science literacy. It can’t start at college. We need to have more engaging approaches to prevent young people from saying: I don’t like that, math.

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