Countries Strengthen Scientific Cooperation in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic
The OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy (STP) held its first meeting of the year in early April. HSE staff members Mikhail Gershman, Dirk Meissner and Elena Sabelnikova joined Ministry of Education and Science representatives as members of the Russian delegation to the event. Here, they explain which approaches participants discussed for combating the coronavirus and for preventing other global crises.
Sharing experience on fighting the pandemic
The OECD Committee for STP held its recent three-day conference online. All of the discussions were connected in some way with COVID-19. In the lead-up to the meeting, 32 countries filled out the OECD Survey on the Science and Innovation Policy Responses to Coronavirus (COVID-19) in record time. This provided a picture of how the new coronavirus was spreading and made it possible to analyze the decisions taken by different countries to combat the pandemic. HSE experts provided the information on Russia and participants discussed various countries’ case studies at a preliminary session during the Committee’s first day of work.
Many countries had quickly created special, senior-level bodies for coordinating their efforts against the spread of coronavirus. Countries’ health ministries, whose responsibilities include the research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine, play a central role in most such structures. Those countries that already had a practice of incorporating the recommendations of scientific advisors in state policy were the most likely to involve leading scientists in coping with the spread of COVID-19.
Many countries are working to prevent panic over the coronavirus infection by battling the spread of ‘fake’ information. They create and regularly update official websites and publications and hold discussions in the media with prominent virologists.
Participants noted the success of innovative policies in Australia where the authorities had managed to reduce regulatory barriers and in Israel, where leaders held open competitions for the best innovative solutions.
The OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy (CSTP) promotes cooperation between OECD member and partner countries in the field of science, technology, and innovation policy (STI) and makes recommendations in this area. In addition to OECD member country representatives, leading partner countries’ experts in the field, including those from Russia, participate in its work. Russia’s Ministry of Education and Science has officially delegated HSE experts to participate in the work of the Committee and its working groups, to present Russia’s position in the field of STI to the OECD, and to ensure that Russian data is represented in databases and major publications of the OECD. The CSTP gathers semiannually and its conference in early April 2020 marked its 116th meeting overall.
One delegate proposed the creation of coordinating bodies at the country level that would consist of leading experts from various fields ranging from medicine to economics and that would present a full picture of the situation for both the population and the authorities, help explain the situation, and facilitate political decisions for countering the crisis.
Cooperating and Collaborating against the Virus
Many delegates stressed the need to support new international scientific collaboration to combat coronavirus infection. Although countries cooperate primarily with the World Health Organization, significant potential exists for multilateral scientific and technical cooperation as well. The Committee suggested that participants look at ways to increase international scientific cooperation. Developing countries and those with less scientific capacity pose the greatest challenge.
One issue concerns countries’ policies for providing open access to research data for use in crises. Although countries previously took a somewhat passive approach to this question, urgent efforts are now underway to mobilize medical research data and to intensify scientific collaboration for analyzing that data, including with the use of artificial intelligence, as the National Institutes of Health and Microsoft are doing in the United States.
The business community and pharmaceutical industry are strengthening cooperation on creating vaccines and testing kits, and universities and hospitals are working together to quickly gather new data on the course and nature of illnesses caused by COVID-19. The delegates noted that several positive results had already been achieved thanks to the timely exchange of data and the granting of open access to publications about the virus.
Funding, Priorities and Plans for the Future
The crisis has brought to the fore the question of support for fundamental (high-risk) research that experts agree is currently underfunded.
Committee members proposed the allocation of targeted grants for research aimed at fighting the coronavirus. They also suggested that support be provided for related areas of research and development such as AI solutions, timely diagnostics, vaccinations and treatments, initiatives for data exchange and machine learning, and many others.
Participants noted the positive experience of South Korea, that employs mobile apps to track the dynamics of how the virus spreads throughout the country, and of Italy, that uses AI to computerize the development of medicines.
The emerging experience of dealing with the new coronavirus has prompted a rethinking of the priorities for the further work of the Committee and the practice of high-level scientific advice. It has also led to the recognition of opportunities to find timely responses to other global crises. In addition to the preliminary and main sessions, the Committee held two panel discussions on scientific advice and responsible communication during large-scale emergencies.
The meeting concluded with the Committee members approving the CSTP Work Programme and Budget for 2021–2022 and agreeing to review the Recommendations on International Cooperation in the Scientific and Technical Field and update the Recommendations of the Council on Access to Research Data Obtained through Public Funding. Also, a number of platforms will be launched for the collection and analysis of data on science, technology, and innovation policy measures such as STI Outlook, STIP Compass 2020 and STI Scoreboarddata.
During the meeting, Russian delegation members commented on several issues related to open access to research data and the functioning of the STIP Compass platform and confirmed their readiness to continue participating in the Committee’s projects.
Mikhail Gershman, Deputy Director of the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge
‘The meeting’s agenda focused entirely on the subject of COVID-19, which is unsurprising given the crisis unfolding in the world. I think that under the changed situation, many of the Committee’s projects—that countries might not have considered priorities before—will gain new impetus for development. This concerns primarily projects on international cooperation in the field of science, technology, and innovation, and the use of open research data. Russia must take an active part in these projects, both to receive the most up-to-date information about initiatives that different countries are planning and to promote the Russian agenda and share its own experience in dealing with the current crisis.’
A team of researchers, including scientists of the HSE Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology, have analysed the evolutionary path of the coronavirus from the Wuhan variant to Omicron. Their findings indicate that many genomic mutations in SARS-CoV-2 are shaped by processes occurring in the intestines and lungs, where the virus acquires the ability to evade the inhibitory effects of microRNA molecules. The study findings have been published in the Journal of Medical Virology.
HSE researchers, in collaboration with their colleagues from Skoltech and the Central Research Institute for Epidemiology, have uncovered the mechanisms behind the emergence of new and dangerous coronavirus variants, such as Alpha, Delta, Omicron, and others. They have discovered that the likelihood of a substitution occurring at a specific site of the SARS-CoV-2 genome is dependent on concordant substitutions occurring at other sites. This explains why new and more contagious variants of the virus can emerge unexpectedly and differ significantly from those that were previously circulating. The study’s findings have been published in eLife.
Pivot to the East: A Comprehensive Study of the Cultural and Civilisational Centres of the Non-Western World is the Top Priority
China and the Chinese world, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia and Africa are gaining new significance in Russia’s foreign policy. However, we do not know enough about the Eastern countries. It is necessary to change the priorities in education, starting from grammar school. Prospects for the development of domestic Oriental studies in the context of the new stage in the development of the system of international relations were discussed at a round table at HSE University.
Robert Romanowski was a ‘Digital Professor’ at HSE University in November 2021. In his interview for the HSE News Service, he talked about the specifics of online teaching, his course on Strategic Branding, and the skills that are essential for marketing professionals today.
There is major potential for economic and humanitarian cooperation between Russia and African countries. Particularly, Russian organisations and universities can help transfer competencies and knowledge in the fields of agriculture, energy, industrial production, environmental management, climate change, and public administration. Experts and representatives of African embassies in Russia discussed these issues at the round table ‘Russia-Africa Sharing Knowledge’ hosted by HSE University.
As part of an international project conducted with the participation of Roscosmos and the European Space Agency, a team of researchers used differential tractography to analyse dMRI scans ofcosmonauts’ brains and found significant changes in brain connectivity, with some of the changes persisting after seven months back on Earth. The paper is published in Frontiers in Neural Circuits.
HSE University-Perm and the Training Centre of the Uzbek Ministry of Finance Sign Cooperation Agreement
HSE University in Perm has become the first academic partner of the Training Centre under the Ministry of Finance of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The parties have signed a cooperation agreement in education and research.
Russian researchers have developed a strategy to create a cheap and rapid COVID-19 test based on isothermal amplification. According to their publication in Applied Biochemistry and Microbiology, use of this strategy will make it possible to create universal test systems for any of the COVID-19 variants.
On November 9, 2021, HSE University signed a memorandum of understanding with Wageningen University & Research, a major university in the Netherlands and one of the leading agricultural research institutes in the world. Participants of the signing ceremony included HSE University Rector Nikita Anisimov, President of the Wageningen University & Research Executive Board Professor Louise Fresco, and Dutch Ambassador to Russia Gilles Beschoor Plug.
The majority of Russians would not agree to being fitted with microchip implants for any purposes—medical or otherwise. A joint study conducted by HSE University’s International Laboratory for Applied Network Research and Aventica found that respondents believe the risks of personal data leaks and misuse to be too high.