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Basic research helps us through the crisis

The corona crisis has demonstrated the value of health research to society and that the basic research environments possess a huge amount of knowledge which society needs. Basic research must therefore now be prioritised so we can solve heath challenges in the future.

By Lars Bo Nielsen, Ulla Wever, Ole Skøtt and Lars Hvilsted Rasmussen, deans of the health faculties at Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, the University of Southern Denmark and Aalborg University, respectively.

Just a few months ago, corona was something that most Danes associated with a bottle of Mexican beer with a slice of lime best enjoyed on a warm summer day.

But following a dreadful spring, everybody now knows that corona is a virus that causes a range of serious respiratory disorders and that the newest, COVID-19, is to blame for hundreds of thousands of deaths around the world, along with overburdened hospitals, locked down societies, rising unemployment, isolation, loneliness and looming economic crises.

In Denmark we have been spared mass deaths and we can thank a strong and well-organised healthcare system for effective and timely treatment. Skilled frontline doctors and nurses at the hospitals have rightly been praised for their efforts; The Danish healthcare system has proven itself to be robust, competent and adaptable.

Behind the strong healthcare system in Denmark stands a unique scientific environment, which throughout the corona crisis has contributed with knowledge based on decades worth of research activities at the country’s universities and hospitals.

The corona crisis has shown us that basic research is pivotal for our ability to tackle a new threat to our health. As opposed to applied research, the goal of basic research is to acquire new knowledge and understanding without knowing in advance what the results may be used for.

This means we cannot therefore predict which basic research project will trigger the next, decisive discovery. Bear in mind that measuring antibodies and the so-called PCR response, which today is the precondition for our ability to test for viruses, originated from basic research driven by curiosity and good ideas about understanding the world.

If the epidemic had struck twenty years ago, we would not have been able to carry out testing on the same scale as we can today. Without basic research, we would not be able to see who is infected, and neither could we reopen Denmark safely.  

The corona crisis has also demonstrated that the basic research environments contribute with hugely useful knowledge for society. Virologists are the people who draw on evidence of viruses when discussing the opening of day-care centres or why care homes should remain closed to visitors. Those virologists and epidemiologists who previously enjoyed an anonymous existence in laboratories and behind large data sets, are now the scientific foundation on which politicians base their decisions and who journalists call for an expert assessment. The researchers are also the people presenting the text in the media, so that we as citizens are well-informed about sources and rates of infection, and understand how viruses behave in the body.

During the reopening phase, a number of questions will arise that are important for how we will tackle the corona virus over the coming years. It seems obvious that basic research and strong clinical research environments must work together to develop new treatments of corona. Nobody knows whether a vaccine will even be found, and perhaps completely different forms of treatment will be needed.

Basic research in e.g. viruses, the immune system and the production of new molecules which can inhibit the virus from entering our cells could possibly pave the way for completely new solutions which we are not yet aware of. Can we afford not to make this investment? No, of course not.

The research environments at the hospitals must be supported, so that they can help with expert assessments of the more or less serious ideas for treatment that are often communicated with great haste in the international media. They must also be able to collaborate with health researchers from the rest of the world on confirming (or disproving) the effect of the most promising, new treatments.

We also need to speed up the health science research that can shed light on the effects of lockdown on the diseases we are otherwise affected by (cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.), on public health (fitness, smoking, alcohol consumption), and on our mental health (loneliness, anxiety, depression). This is important in order to understand how we – both as individuals and society – can prevent corona from taking more lives than necessary.

The public sector in Denmark has an objective of using one per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on research, which also includes all EU funding. Previously, this one per cent of GDP was a minimum target. Unfortunately, this goal has now become a cap for how much money is invested in research in the Finance Act. Due to the corona crisis, we are now facing a dramatic fall in GDP. This may mean a reduction in the money invested in research, even though the situation ought to call for increased investment.

Is this a good place to make savings? No, of course not.

When we as a society face unprecedented health threats such as COVID-19, we cannot rely on our experience or on familiar solution models. When faced with the unknown, we cannot avoid falling back on basic research, which is a precondition for our ability as society to find a path through the crisis. Basic research is what makes it possible to find patterns and meaning, and the solution to the corona pandemic will therefore also be based on decades of investment in this basic research.  

That there also is popular support for investing in basic research can be illustrated with a little story. Recently, the two siblings and elite athletes Line and Mads Brandt Petersen used crowd funding to raise DKK 142,195. The objective of their inter-sibling competition was to raise money for corona research, and more than 500 ordinary people and local businesses donated small and large amounts out of their own pockets to this purpose.

At the universities, we think it is wonderful that the surrounding society appreciates what we do and that people can see that basic research can and must make a difference to society.

The corona crisis has caused a lot of suffering, but it has also focused a great deal of attention on research from among some of the groups in society that do not normally take an interest in the work of the universities. The time we are living in shows us that basic research is important and of social value. When society is in a state of crisis, we must resort to scientific competence to find solutions. The broader the knowledge society has, the better prepared it is for an unexpected crisis, and the more effective the solutions are. The research expertise that we have built up over decades has been vital to our ability to tackle the corona crisis. We must remember this when we prioritise society's investments in the coming years.

Can we afford not to? No, of course not.

The article is published in Jyllands-Posten May 23, 2020 (in Danish).