1. COVID-19: Turning the crisis into collaborative opportunity

In mid-March, Daya Reddy and Heide Hackmann wrote a message to ISC Members and the broader international scientific community on the unfolding COVID crisis:

‘We must think critically about how we are responding to this public health emergency, which in turn could become an economic and social emergency. It is a moment to remind policy-makers of the importance of evidence-based decisions, and to work with them in preparing for other upheavals, current and future.’

The predictions were correct – it quickly became more than a health emergency, with existing economic and social vulnerabilities coming to the fore.

‘Overnight, the ISC’s power to convene expert minds in the traditional way has been stymied by a virus. We were unprepared for this and it is costing us dearly. Beyond the financial implications, we lament the loss of opportunities to exchange ideas, strategize, consolidate partnerships, and develop joint efforts. At the same time, this external threat forces us to rethink and to find new, equally effective ways to convene our expert communities.’

Daya Reddy, Heide Hackmann

In light of the pandemic, the Council had to pivot some of its Action Plan activities, and the Governing Board rapidly set up an oversight group consisting of Geoffrey Boulton, Pearl Dykstra and Elisa Reis, along with members of staff of the headquarters. The group acted as a sounding board for new COVID-19 projects that the ISC might lead, co-lead or lend its patronage to.

‘The COVID-19 disaster is a manifestation of what the international scientific community has recognised for years: that in an increasingly interdependent world, our lifestyles, our choices mean that hazards are interwoven and spread throughout communities, societies and economies in complex ways that lead to systemic and cascading risks.’

Mami Mizutori, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction at UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Heide Hackmann, writing for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Council launched the COVID-19 Global Science Portal in response to the need for an online space in which ISC Members could engage with each other on scientific debates around the novel virus. Its success was due to strong engagement from Members and Affiliated Bodies, who shared more than 150 submissions ranging from statements and announcements to topical discourse and journal articles. The Portal accounted for nearly 8% of all webpage views in 2020, becoming the Council’s second most visited page after the homepage.

The ISC co-led the Corona Sustainability Compass science blog launched in April in partnership with the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt – UBA), Future Earth and Foundation 2°. The blog promoted dialogues that considered the bigger challenges ahead: the impact of global warming, the excess consumption of planetary resources and the loss of biodiversity, taking the current crisis as a unique opportunity to rethink business models and shape a new start for more sustainable and future-proofed economies.

The Committee on Data (CODATA), the World Data System, the Research Data Alliance and Global Open FAIR joined forces to optimize the research data ecosystem, launching a COVID-19 appeal, Data Together, as their first joint action. Data Together called on the data community to unite existing initiatives and accelerate the development of core services to help meet the challenges of the crisis.

The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) called for a network of global volunteers to build a Policy-Making Tracker that would record how (not necessarily which) policy interventions were being made by various national and subnational (state, provincial) governments across the world. The ISC promoted this widely as part of its Science-for-policy mission.

‘The aim of the INGSA policy-making tracker is to understand the decision-making process in each government’s response to COVID-19. In particular, we want to focus on whether justifications are given for a policy announcement, what person or group is providing the advice or evidence, and whether there is any evidence cited in the policy announcement.’ 

Lara Cowen, INGSA Trustee and former INGSA Executive Officer

The ISC joined the World Pandemic Research Network (WPRN) as a supporting partner in May 2020. The platform serves as an edited, open-source global directory of projects, initiatives and resources on the societal and human impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 1,000 projects listed from 380+ institutions.

In late 2020 the ISC took stock of its projects and partnerships and decided to consolidate its work on COVID-19 into one major project that could address a knowledge gap in the policy-making process, by outlining a range of scenarios over the mid and long term that can assist our understanding of the options for achieving an optimistic and fair end to the pandemic. The resulting COVID-19 Scenarios Project commenced towards the end of 2020. It is led by a global oversight group of experts in natural, social and economic sciences, with the World Health Organization and United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) as observers. The project aims to finalize a report in September 2021.

See more on the COVID-19 Project

ISC COVID-19 Outcome Scenarios Project

What emerges next will depend on the ongoing evolution of the virus, on the behaviours of citizens, on the decisions of governments, on progress in medical science, and on the extent to which the international community can stand together in its efforts to defeat the virus.


In this section:

Bouncing Forward Sustainably – the IIASA-ISC Consultative Science Platform

Starting in May 2020, the ISC and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) launched the IIASA-ISC Consultative Science Platform: Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World. The platform drew on the combined strengths, expertise and large scientific communities of the two organizations to come up with a set of insights and recommendations. The insights resulted from a series of twelve consultative meetings with more than 200 thematic experts and thought leaders from the scientific community and private sector from all regions of the world.

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Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy

The ISC was honoured to have Flavia Schlegel serve as its first Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy. Appointed in 2019 to strengthen the ISC’s vision to advance science as a global public good, Flavia Schlegel assisted in building the ISC’s identity and presence at the highest political levels within the UN and other global policy fora, such as the G20. She played a pivotal role in the IIASA-ISC Consultative Science Platform, Bouncing Forward Sustainably: Pathways to a post-COVID World,and the G20’s science programme, Foresight: Science for Navigating Critical Transitions hosted by Saudi Arabia.

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Rethinking Economics in the Light of COVID and Future Crises

Moderated by Craig Calhoun, Rethinking Economics fostered discussion on today’s global challenges with presentations from leading economic thinkers Sam Bowles and Wendy Carlin, and responses from Danielle Allen, Luc Soete and Jayati Ghosh. Its success led to the ISC adopting a similar approach for a future webinar series that provides engagement with scholars and contemporary thinkers on topics related to the scientific priorities of ISC Members.

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Boy with ipad

COVIDEA: Moving learning societies onto a more sustainable development path

The COVID Education Alliance (COVIDEA) was created in response to a major challenge exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic: how to make education systems agile in the face of external shocks and fully adapted to the digital transformation. One of the key knowledge gaps the Alliance is keen to address is whether the digital tools and technological options being developed today are affordable and accessible for all, and whether they can support achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP)

GRIP is a radically interdisciplinary research programme that views inequality as a fundamental challenge to human wellbeing, and works to foster co-designed processes of knowledge creation to understand and address the multiple dimensions of rising inequalities.

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Image: NIAID on Flickr.

Next up: Bouncing Forward Sustainably – the IIASA-ISC Consultative Science Platform ▶

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