Global spending on coronavirus research hits $5 billion

OECD finds science rose to the challenge of coronavirus, but this led to cancelled projects elsewhere and academics working outside their expertise

一月 18, 2021
US dollars
Source: iStock

North America has comprehensively outspent Europe on new public research to tackle coronavirus, according to a new analysis that looks at how the pandemic has reshaped the scientific system.

In total, more than $5 billion (£3.7 billion) was ploughed into virus research by public funding bodies in the first nine months of 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Of this, $3.5 billion came from North America, $850 million from Europe, and $300 million was invested by the Asia-Pacific region, excluding China, for which figures are not available.

The OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021 paints a picture of a global science and innovation system that has risen to the challenge of coronavirus, unleashing an unprecedented wave of scientific enquiry to help the world understand the disease.

By mid-September last year, more than 2,000 funded projects had been registered worldwide.

These efforts have not been limited to epidemiology, treatments and vaccines. The OECD has also tracked a “remarkable” number of projects – more than 200 – looking at the societal response to the virus, backed by more than $100 million of funding.

Coronavirus research was on the whole made freely accessible. Three-quarters of papers about the pandemic are open access, it found, compared with 43 per cent for diabetes and 40 per cent for dementia.

But under the strain of responding to coronavirus, the global research system has struggled in places and thrown up unwanted side-effects, the OECD also found.

Fast-tracking research proposals stretched funding agencies to their limits, leading to “intense workload and fatigue” for reviewers in the UK.

The sudden switch to coronavirus research also hit research in other areas; the US-based Cancer Research Institute has so far tracked more than 1,000 cancer trials that were stopped because of the pandemic.

And although academics published an “abundance” of papers about coronavirus in 2020 – close to 10,000 a month since May – there are nonetheless questions over their quality, the report says. “It is still difficult to assess whether the scientific production was worth the public investment,” it comments. The crisis “potentially” forced researchers to “move to domains outside their real expertise”, it says.

And the impact has been felt by academics personally. According to OECD surveys, about 40 per cent reported a drop in the time they have available for research, and more than half have experienced or predict a fall in research funding. Meanwhile, more than half said that the crisis would adversely affect their job security and career opportunities.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Global Covid research spending hits $5 billion

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