What is the Role of Research in a Crisis?

A summary of the scientific symposium ‘Crises and the Importance of Research: How Prepared Can We Be?, held as part of the 2023 ALLEA General Assembly, which took place on 22-23 June 2023.

On 22 June 2023, scientists, policymakers, and other stakeholders from the research community gathered at the Royal Society in London to discuss the latest ideas on the role of research in the many crises surrounding this moment, including military conflicts and war, pandemics, and climate catastrophe. Attended by over 260 participants, both online and in-person, the scientific symposium, ‘Crises and the Importance of Research: How Prepared Can We Be?’, was organised by ALLEA in partnership with our UK member academies, the British Academy, the Learned Society of Wales, the Royal Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as part of its 2023 General Assembly.

The public symposium, which was livestreamed, began with opening remarks by Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, Professor Antonio Loprieno, ALLEA President, and Professor Helen Fulton, Vice-President of the Learned Society of Wales. Sir Adrian welcomed those present and thanked all those involved in organising the event before inviting Professor Loprieno to address the attendees.

Antonio Loprieno went on to speak about the increasingly relevant role of scientists with significant parts to play in constructing better functioning societies, particularly during crises.

The translational dimension of science, which we call science communication or science advice, has become more cogent in our time of digital communication, in which with two mouse-clicks we can enjoy both immediate access to Nobel prize-winning paper and to the Twitter page of a conspiracy theorist.

– Antonio Loprieno, President of ALLEA.

Professor Fulton followed next, and began her address in Welsh, focussing on the importance of collaboration between those present, and more broadly, in the scientific community. Following the opening remarks, the programme included four panel discussions on such important questions as ‘What is the role of public services during a crisis?’, ‘How can data be leverages effectively in disaster response?’, ‘What can we learn from the pandemic measures to manage future crises?’, ‘What is the role of the European research community in supporting at-risk scholars?’, among several others.

An overview of the interactive sessions with some highlighted excerpts can be found below. Click on the videos to watch the individual panel discussions in full. Find also here a report by the BBC on the 2023 ALLEA General Assembly by Roland Pease: Science in Action, Preparing for Crises (BBC).

Session 1: Diversity and Inclusivity in Disaster Responses

The symposium began with a panel discussion, moderated by Chair of the SAPEA Working Group on Strategic Crisis Management in the EU, Tina Comes, on how various crises, including the climate crisis, humanitarian and military crises, as well as economic crises, can be addressed in ways that better take into account the most vulnerable and marginalised communities. The panel speakers included Hannah Cloke, Robin Coningham, and Tom Shakespeare.

Some key points shared by the panel include:

  • All researchers – not just crisis researchers – should pay attention to crises, explained Professor Comes, adding that the current state of ‘poly-crisis’ or ‘perma-crisis’, which refers to multiple crises co-occurring and amplifying one another, necessitates this shared interest and endeavour to manage them.
  • Professor Coningham said that in his experience, there is greater need to include local communities in the decision-making processes of humanitarian aid and post-emergency disaster response. Co-designing responses, achieved only through long-term engagement with the local knowledge-base, is effective but rarely funded, he observed.
  • Professor Shakespeare described how disabled people are disproportionately affected by all types of crises due to several accessibility issues. Furthermore, he added, “Crises lead to more people being affected by injury and disability“, explaining that we need to devise disaster response plans that take the needs of disabled people into greater account so that we can be better prepared to meet them.
  • The panel observed that crises affect the most vulnerable in society hardest. Therefore, measures to manage such crises must necessarily take these disparities into account so they may achieve equitable results. Examples of disaster response actions that failed to take this disproportionate impact on marginalised communities into account include the rebuilding of New Orleans in the United States after Hurricane Katrina and the response to the 2021 floods in western Germany.

Session 2: Pandemic Preparedness and Building Resilience

The next panel, moderated by Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research and Knowledge Exchange) at the University of Brighton/UK, Rusi Jaspal, discussed the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic for future preparedness and systems resilience. Speakers, Maarja KruusmaaAgnes Nanyonjo, and Mark Walport, debated such questions as “What are the differentiated roles of actors across different levels of governance, geographical areas, and economic sectors in preparing for future pandemics and assessing the impact of previous pandemics?” and “What role did trust in institutions play in impacting people’s behaviours and attitudes during the pandemic?”, among others.

Key points:

  • Professor Jaspal talked about how although there is great merit in using an interdisciplinary approach to pandemic management, there are challenges inherent to such an approach as well; he cited as one example the difficulties in conducting systematic reviews of evidence generated by the various research disciplines created by the complexity of synthesising the many different theoretical and methodological approaches used by them.
  • Mark Walport described the different types of “preparedness” needed, such as policy and operational preparedness. In talking about pursuing the latter, he made the point that in the pursuit of global trade and efficiency, countries are no longer as prepared to deal with shortages in essential items, including food, as they used to be, and that some new balance needs to be reached between local production and trade.
  • Professor Kruusmaa, who also worked within the SAPEA Working Group on Strategic Crisis Management, expounded on the need for flexibility in pandemic preparedness by acknowledging the fact that the specifics of crises, and even pandemics, can vary and that there is danger in “overlearning” from the previous pandemic. She cautioned that this should not prevent us from looking for themes and patterns that are common across crises and learning from them. Prof Kruusmaa also reiterated that “in addition to learning from the past, we should learn from each other”.
  • Professor Nanyonjo outlined the lack of preparedness to meet the needs of under-served and under-researched communities, and the inappropriateness of a “one-size-fits-all” approach. She also explained that having worked with ethnic minority communities, she finds that communicating science is not just about “what is being said, but how it is said and who is saying it”, adding that winning the trust of these communities could be better achieved by people that have built relationships with them prior to the occurrence of the crisis.

Session 3: Data for Emergencies

The penultimate session of the day was dedicated to discussing the critical role for data, including non-traditional sources of data such as mobility data generated by telecom infrastructure and citizen surveys, in disaster response and emergency management. The panel was moderated by Head of Global Disaster Risk Reduction for UK Health Security Agency, Virginia Murray, and included Sheila M. BirdFrancis P. CrawleyNuria Oliver, and Ronan Lyons. The session included sharing the findings of the Royal Society’s public dialogue on creating resilient and trusted data systems and its report on the role of privacy-enhancing technologies in data governance and collaborative analysis.

Key points:

  • Professor Oliver described how data is critical to advocating for evidence-based policy, as demonstrated by her experience in successfully pushing for schools to remain open during the pandemic in response to the evidence that much of the transmission was within households and not through schools.
  • The panel also debated concerns about data privacy that usually prevents wide-spread integration of data, particularly medical data. Professor Bird detailed how such medical data are privileged, and that this confidentiality should not be compromised even during a crisis. This commitment to protecting the identities and personal data of study subjects might result in a small compromise of scientific rigour, but this trade-off may be the more ethical choice.
  • Professor Crawley talked about the importance of conducting research during a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than after because data may not be as easily recovered or retrievable post-hoc. He then reiterated the idea that systematic data collection and coherent data policy could make for better interactions between the research community and policymakers.
  • Prof Lyons added that the skill-sets to collect, integrate and interpret large quantities of data are in short supply; there needs to be an upskilling operation for analysts around the world to handle data effectively because a lack of such trained people can be a significant barrier to evidence-based policymaking.

Session 4: In-Conversation: Perspectives from Ukraine

The symposium concluded with a conversation with two Ukrainian academics, Aisel Omarova and Larysa Zasiekina, on how the wider European research community could collectively support Ukrainian scholars during and after the war. The session was co-chaired by ALLEA Vice-President Luke Drury and Simon Goldhill, Foreign Secretary of the British Academy.

Key points:

  • Professor Goldhill and Professor Drury highlighted programmes by the UK and European academies, such as the Researchers at Risk Fellowships and the European Fund for Displaced Scientists, that have successfully supported several Ukrainian scholars to continue with their research amidst the war. Luke Drury said that the interest of the academies in supporting Ukraine stems not only from a sense of solidarity, but also in recognition of the fact that science is a global and collaborative endeavour. He also reiterated that rebuilding Ukraine after the war would require an uninterrupted science infrastructure,which presents yet another reason for Europe’s academic community to support the resilience of Ukraine’s research ecosystem.
  • Professor Zasiekina shared her research focus on the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by displaced youth in Ukraine. She added that the war could present an opportunity to construct a strong national identity, distinct from Russia, among young Ukrainians – an identity that Russia has tried to erase for many decades.
  • Dr Omarova, who works on the historical and legal aspects of children’s rights, outlined the deportation and forcible transfer of Ukrainian children, estimated to be in the hundred thousands. Dr Omarova described Russia’s actions in this respect as ‘crimes against humanity’, in violation of several articles of the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • Professor Zasiekina and Dr Omarova engaged in an insightful dialogue with the audience on a wide range of topics such as Ukrainians’ history and national security, national identity, mental health and trauma, as well as how to better support scholars remaining in the Ukraine.

Business Meeting

On 23 June, delegates from ALLEA’s Member Academies gathered for the annual Business Meeting to discuss matters of governance and policy relevant for ALLEA’s strategic and operational future. Find here the ALLEA Activities Report 2023 to read more about the activities of ALLEA working groups, projects, and events focused on our seven strategic priorities.

At this year’s Business Meeting, the 2023 revised edition of The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity, which reflects the latest views of the research community on good research practices, was released. The revisions included in the new edition help ensure that the European Code of Conduct remains fit for purpose and relevant to all disciplines, emerging areas of research, and new research practices. The Chair of the dedicated Code of Conduct Drafting Group, Krista Varantola, presented the revised Code to the delegates of ALLEA Member Academies in attendance, alongside its online release to the wider research community.

Photos of the 2023 ALLEA General Assembly are available on this page.

About the ALLEA General Assembly

The General Assembly annually convenes academies of sciences and humanities from almost 40 countries across the Council of Europe region. General Assemblies are hosted by ALLEA Member Academies and the programme typically consists of the internal business meeting of academy delegates, and a scientific symposium that is open to the public. The symposium explores pressing topics from the fields of science, society, and policy, and provides a platform for international, interdisciplinary, and cross-sectoral debate. The business meeting addresses governance, strategy, and policy matters and is restricted to Member Academies’ delegates. The next General Assembly is scheduled for 22–23 May 2024 and will be hosted in Berlin.