Conversations in Confinement – a new initiative from COSPAR

During the pandemic, the Committee on Space Research, COSPAR, will be inviting COSPAR Associates and the broader constituency to comment and provide their thoughts on how COSPAR can best fulfill its mission after the crisis is over, and how the space research community should use lessons learned from the crisis to help society meet future challenges such as climate change. President of COSPAR, Len A. Fisk, pens the first letter in this series.

COSPAR in the Post-Pandemic Era

As I sit here in my home office, fulfilling my professional responsibilities only through Zoom, and unable to leave my home on any errand that will place me within 6 feet of another human being, there is ample time for contemplation. What better then should the President contemplate than the role of COSPAR after the pandemic subsides? It is, after all, the responsibility of the President to think strategically, to assess the role that we should have in the post-pandemic era, and to plan for how to achieve this role.

While this may be the responsibility of the President, I would be unwise to assume that I have any unique knowledge of what the future holds, or a unique skill to prepare for an uncertain future. So this essay begins a process in which we solicit from the COSPAR community any input they would like to share or advice they would like to give on preparing COSPAR for the post-pandemic era.

Obviously, to prepare for the post-pandemic era, we have to imagine what the post-pandemic era will be like, and for that we should examine how our lives have and are being changed by the pandemic, and which, if any, of these changes will be permanent. We are currently living lives of isolation as individuals and as whole countries. We have effectively placed borders around our homes, borders around our countries, internal and external travel is discouraged or restricted. We communicate through social media. We perform normal, in-person tasks, for work and for education, remotely.

In my judgement, such isolation is unlikely to become the new norm.  We have a global, intertwined economy. Manufacturing occurs worldwide. There are global supply chains and interconnected financial systems. The pandemic has caused enormous financial damage and could result in a worldwide depression on the scale of the 1930s. It seems unlikely that to recover from this financial maelstrom we will develop an entirely new global economy, since the current one was not at fault.  Rather, we will move as quickly as we can to restore, hopefully, the best parts of the global economy.

Humans are social creatures. We do not live in isolation. There may be efficiencies and conveniences that are revealed by working remotely, and these will continue. However, gatherings and social interactions will resume as soon as possible. The education system in the United States, and I presume in other countries, is dependent on in-person interactions. I cannot imagine educating undergraduate or graduate scientists and engineers with whom I never interact, except by video link. In the United States the financial model of every major university would collapse if students did not avail themselves of the extraordinary facilities that have been constructed to educate them.

It is possible that international travel will not fully recover, but here too I have doubts. I don’t plan to take a cruise for fear they are death traps seeking a port, any port, in which to land. However, cruise ships grew to enormous sizes and cruise lines profitable because there was demand. When the danger is perceived as passed, the demand will return. 

We should also recognize that the COSPAR community, the science community in general, indeed many professionals assume that extensive international travel is an essential part of their lives. There is an entire generation of professionals who expect international travel in their work, and for pleasure, and then there are the armies of tourists, who, like the passengers on cruise ships, will demand that they can continue to do what they have enjoyed.

However, it would be a tragedy if we are only able to recreate the pre-pandemic world. As Winston Churchill said, “never waste a good crisis”. There are growing inequities in our financial system. There are inequities in access to health care. There is, as always, injustice. There is a rise in nationalism and totalitarianism, which works against the clear and present need for a coordinated response to a global crisis. There are countries where the leaders have a resistance to facts, particularly ones that do not support their political narratives. Let us hope that we do not waste the pandemic crisis; rather, we must use our response to the crisis to make a better world.

We need first to contain the virus and use the full power of the world’s biomedical research capabilities to develop cures and vaccines. We then have to assess how much economic damage has been done.  How many businesses have been lost, how many jobs have been lost, how much personal and national debt has been accumulated? There will be nations that are winners and losers. The nations that best protected their workers and their economy will emerge first, perhaps changing the world order.  All nations will need to examine their resiliency, and prepare to be more resilient to the inevitable crises of the future.

Although nations are now isolated from each other, there is coordination. With almost no exceptions, nations are all attempting to stop the spread of Covid-19, using similar means of social distancing and lock downs. Within the United States, each day I see a remarkable community response to the pandemic: most people rigorously following the social distancing requirements and offering assistance to the less fortunate, medical workers volunteering to serve in the most impacted hospitals. There is extraordinary coordination among scientists from around the world seeking cures and vaccines. They are forgoing the need for academic recognition, and are readily sharing knowledge of what is happening, what is working, and what is not.

We can hope that the global efforts to contain and ultimately eliminate Covid-19 will serve as a lesson that it is possible for the world to unite in defeating an enemy that threatens all of humanity. We can also hope that we will apply this lesson to defeat the enemy that relentlessly bears down upon us, the pending disaster of global climate change. The enemies are different: a pandemic, a threat to the environment of Earth. However, the response needs to be the same.  All nations and all people need to coordinate their behavior to protect all of humanity.

What then is the role of COSPAR in this world in crisis, as it evolves into an uncertain future? The mission of COSPAR is clear: we encourage and facilitate international cooperation in space research. We recognize that observations of the Earth from space are essential to understand and predict global climate change. We recognize that observations and studies of space weather are essential to protect our technological civilization, that observations and studies of the solar system and the knowledge provided on the evolution of life, and of the universe beyond and the knowledge provided on its governing physics, are essential for a forward-looking civilization. In a world that finally discovers the essential value of coordination among nations, our role in coordinating the nations of the world to derive from space all the benefits that are available is ever more important.

Given the importance of our mission, we have to find a way to pursue it no matter what impediments against international interactions are inflicted on us.  Our Assemblies and Symposia will need to remain in-person, to provide the informal interactions that connect and bind us in the pursuit of our common goal of space research. COSPAR already holds many smaller meetings remotely, and could hold more if needed. We need to pledge ourselves to increased activity, by whatever means necessary, because we are needed so that space and the benefits available therefrom can contribute to the recovery from the damage of the pandemic and to the building of a better world.

Please be reminded that the COSPAR community is asked for input as we chart our future through these difficult times. Anything that you would like to share or advice you would like to give on preparing COSPAR for the post-pandemic era is most welcome, and should be submitted to Selected submissions will be published in the future, and all submissions will be used to help guide COSPAR as we move forward.

Len A. Fisk
President of COSPAR

To see the responses to this letter, and to participate in the Conversations in Confinement initiative, click here.

The Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) is an interdisciplinary scientific body concerned with the progress on an international scale of all kinds of scientific investigations carried out with space vehicles, rockets and balloons.

Image by Steve P2008 on Flickr

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