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The pandemic has shown UK science at its best, but challenges loom on the horizon

Jane Hughes

The phrase ‘following the science’ has been among the most contentious to be used by the Government during the COVID-19 pandemic. But whilst science cannot always be certain, the principle of following the clues in the natural world to lead us toward new discoveries is the very basis of progress.

The Francis Crick Institute has been among the leading voices in furthering our scientific understanding of COVID-19 and how we can respond. In this week’s Edition of the Insider, Jane Hughes reflects on the contribution so far and the issues looming on the horizon.

The Crick was set up to carry out blue-skies biomedical research; the kind of research that expands our horizons and broadens our understanding of human diseases, but also the kind of work that can be years or even decades away from benefiting patients.

And then COVID happened.

Suddenly, there was a need for the world’s greatest science minds to help us all understand and tackle an infection that no one knew anything about. And we needed the answers immediately.

It was a galvanising moment for Crick researchers who saw that their work and their expertise could help shed light on this unknown virus.

Some research groups set aside years of work to respond, pivoting onto new projects to help build the world’s understanding of the infection. To see them coming together to share what they were learning; people from different disciplines approaching complex questions in different ways and sharing their results; their exchanges sparking new ideas and new theories, has been awe-inspiring.

The Crick was set up to be agile, multi-disciplinary, collaborative. Suddenly, the benefits of that approach have become very evident.

It has also enabled us to use our resident expertise to set up our own Coronavirus testing facility at a time when the national testing system was struggling to get up and running. Within a couple of weeks of lockdown, we had teamed up with local hospitals and care homes to test staff and patients fast and accurately.

For a communications team which is focused on building the Crick’s reputation and campaigning for a supportive environment for our science, it is an extraordinary time that offers unprecedented opportunities, but also immense challenges.

We have never had such an appetite for news about our scientists’ work. We can demonstrate the relevance of science to society more powerfully than ever. Our stakeholders have been able to see the Crick at its best – agile, using our expertise, thinking outside the box. We are able to demonstrate our role as a national scientific resource. And as an organisation passionate about highlighting the relevance of science to society, it’s helped us make that case as never before.

But it comes as UK science is wrestling with the impact of Brexit and immigration changes which put the collaborative internationalism of research at risk. The Crick has campaigned hard in those areas. Getting attention for those issues suddenly looks like uphill work. And the economic fallout from the pandemic poses new threats to research. As we emerge from the pandemic, the Crick, and UK science as a whole, is looking ahead to a challenging future.