All of a sudden, scientists are some of the most sought-after advisors to politicians and the general public: Christian Drosten, Germany, Anthony Fauci, USA, or Niki Popper, Vienna University of Technology – they all currently enjoy a strong media presence. Virologists, epidemiologists and mathematicians are just some examples of researchers who currently find themselves centre stage, confronted by the need to show a particularly high level of responsibility. Many of them give clear and lucid explanations of the current state of research, provide a solid basis for decision-making and conduct research even at peak times in order to understand the causes of the corona crisis and to mitigate its consequences. The fact that we have these proficient researchers today is not a coincidence, but the result of years of investment in cutting-edge research. Now, in a time of crisis, we are becoming acutely aware of the importance of publicly funded science. The efforts to manage the global corona pandemic clearly show that independent and high-quality research is the central prerequisite for coming to grips with existential crises. Policy-makers need sound scientific findings on which to base decisions that affect the lives of millions of people, and entire nations are placing their hopes in the knowledge and innovative power of competent researchers in order to overcome the current crisis.
Health and environment closely linked
In recent weeks, confidence in science has increased considerably – and rightly so. Numerous questions arise that concern not only decision-makers but, ultimately, all of us. How does the new virus work? How can we fight it? What forecasts can be made? What are the economic, social and legal repercussions of the corona crisis? Scientifically sound facts and findings are of the essence now. Ideologically coloured opinions and unconfirmed news, on the other hand, endanger the lives of countless people. For, if we fail to act wisely and cogently now, the price we all have to pay will be far higher. We are racing against the clock in our effort to contain and ultimately defeat the pandemic. In order to achieve this goal, politicians all over the world are prepared to make immense financial investments and impose severe restrictions on the population. The willingness to shoulder such endeavours could serve as an example of how to approach even greater challenges. “Flatten the curve” should also be our guiding principle when it comes to global warming and the destruction of our natural environment. After all, the increase in greenhouse gases, the loss of natural resources and the decline in biodiversity show a steep curve similar to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 viruses. Coping with these crises will not only be many times more challenging than containing the corona pandemic, it will also take decades, rather than months. The devastation of the environment will impose great hardship and sacrifice on many generations if we wait too long now. Environmental degradation and the emergence of pandemics are closely linked. More than 70 percent of all infectious diseases are caused by so-called zoonoses, i.e. pathogens transmitted from wild and domestic animals to humans. Rainforest deforestation, climate change and the loss of natural biodiversity encourage zoonoses, because environmental degradation facilitates the transmission of pathogens to humans. Consequently, our health is closely linked to the sustainable management of our environment. The One-Health approach takes this into account and combines cross-disciplinary knowledge and action to enable the shift from sectoral to integrated solutions.
Free research and solidarity more important than ever
The world of science is also facing major challenges. It is experiencing a process of profound change, which is being accelerated by the corona crisis. It is impressive to see how many predominantly publicly funded researchers around the world are currently engaged in networking, pooling their research capacities, sharing all data and making preliminary research results freely available so that solutions for the current crisis can be found
by joining forces. More than ever, we need science to be independent and globally networked, and we need free access to data, information and knowledge. It is to be hoped that the current solidarity between scientists – across the borders between disciplines, institutions and countries – will be a lasting phenomenon. After all, a strong science community also strengthens general resilience, i.e. the ability of society to resist the current pandemic and similar crises and recover quickly from any consequences. For this reason, we must put a stop to the “privatization of knowledge”, because knowledge is a common good that must be openly available to all so that everyone can benefit from its effects. On this basis, free and independent research is one of the central pillars of an enlightened democracy. It may be anticipated that the Corona crisis will lead to a fundamental transformation of our society. No stone will be left unturned. We cannot yet fathom the extent of social, political, economic and also ecological repercussions the current crisis will bring in its wake. We must also be vigilant, of course, to ensure that the short-term restrictions on our fundamental rights do not mutate into a permanent state of affairs. The tried and tested checks and balances of constitutions are of particular importance in this respect. Let us hope that politicians will show as great a sense of responsibility for managing environmental crises as they do for containing the current pandemic, and that the level of attention and appreciation currently being paid to scientific knowledge will be sustained. When making decisions of tremendous importance we simply cannot afford to do without the best knowledge available. Science is undeniably the only reliable basis for meeting current and future challenges.
Klement Tockner has been President of the Austrian Science Fund FWF since 2016. Tockner is a water ecologist and holds a professorship for aquatic ecology at the Freie Universität Berlin. For many years he headed a research group at ETH Zurich and served as director of the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) in Berlin.
The guest commentary was published in the weekly newspaper "Die Furche" on 2 April, 2020. (in German)