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The writer is director-general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and professor at the College de France
As the planet races to rid itself of Sars-Cov-2, the pandemic has shown that investing in multi-faceted scientific pursuit can ultimately save lives.
Monitoring emerging virus variants, for example, requires a cross-disciplinary effort involving epidemiologists, geneticists, statisticians, immunologists and other specialists. Such collaborations have relied on existing investment (for research, data sharing, drug and vaccine development), as well as new funding to enable combined approaches to fighting the evolving pandemic.
Interdisciplinarity isn’t new. Consider Marie Skłodowska Curie, the physicist and chemist who discovered radium. She applied X-rays to medical purposes during the first world war and set up the Institut Curie, which incorporated basic science (physics, chemistry, biology) alongside hospital care.
Multidisciplinary research offers new approaches and richer outcomes — sometimes unforeseen. Likewise, infrastructure designed for one purpose often lends itself to another. When existing tools are optimised for multiple purposes, it paves the way for creative collaboration.
When biologists joined clinicians, physicists, chemists, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists and material scientists, it enabled successes such as building artificial limbs that address phantom pain in amputees or wearable technology that monitors health in real time.
Meteorologists working with social scientists, economists, engineers and computer scientists created better severe weather warning systems, because accurate early alerts are only useful if people have access to them.
The same synchrotrons — large particle accelerators — used in material sciences have also helped to create a synthetic vaccine against foot-and-mouth disease and to test Covid-19 vaccines.
Covid-19 necessitated new partnerships and revealed opportunities to accelerate science, for example the development of mRNA vaccines for other diseases. Crucially, across scientific disciplines, between industry, academia, health systems and governments, researchers are proving the value of pooling expertise and eschewing boundaries.
This crisis is an opportunity for change. For science, that change is not what we do, but how we do it. We need a paradigm shift that incentivises and drives collaboration and that means addressing an outmoded approach to funding. The emergency funds allocated during the pandemic can’t be a one-off — science needs consistent investment to prepare for upcoming global threats.
Funders and research institutions must protect the basic, discovery-driven research which is the core of scientific progress. We need an ecosystem that enables a range of people to interact productively and to foster multidisciplinary fertilisation.
This diversity begins by prioritising open access. It must reward collaboration over competition. It means providing forums where scientists and representatives from industry, government, non-profits, and the wider society can come together to channel joint approaches to complex problems. To truly represent scientific perspectives, this ecosystem must be wholly inclusive.
The clock is ticking. The past year has shown how our current way of life is fragile and unsustainable. Multidisciplinary research is one of the strongest tools we have to solve today’s grand challenges, including climate change. Potential breakthroughs, such as plastic-degrading enzymes or biosensors that monitor and assess the environment, may offer a path to economic recovery.
These approaches are achievable. But only if we work together and rethink how we support, and conduct, science.