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“The need for new knowledge about COVID-19 requires research initiatives”

Our society is in a very difficult situation, caused by the Corona virus epidemic. New knowledge about how society should act to handle the epidemic is absolutely necessary, and demands both short-term and long-term research and innovation initiatives, says Sven Stafström, Director General of the Swedish Research Council.

Sven Stafström

Photo: Johanna Hanno

Much of what is done today to mitigate the effects of SARS-CoV-2 is based on science and proven experience – investments in research and innovation have given us a solid base to start from. Further specific knowledge is, however, absolutely necessary. In the acute situation we are now in, we have to find effective anti-viral medicines and vaccine, and increase our knowledge of how the virus is transmitted. Major research and innovation initiatives are being made, in Sweden and across the whole world. Together with the world around us, we must do everything we can to manage the pandemic and to stabilise society again.

The Swedish Research Council adapts its activities as a result of the Corona pandemic

Like in many other workplaces, our personnel is working from home and meetings are almost exclusively digital. We use the same platform as many others in academia, Zoom, which is provided by our Sunet department. They are working hard on ensuring all higher education institutions in Sweden are able to run their activities remotely.

Our focus is on making our work continue, sometimes in new digital ways, but at the same time we understand that applicants, grant recipients and reviewers are in a situation that might make the work with applications, research and reviewing more difficult. So far, we have extended the deadlines for some applications and for reporting, and we have also made it possible to extend the availability period for grants. We will shortly be deciding whether to hold review panel meetings in August–September in our usual way, or if these meetings shall be held digitally.

Immediate research initiatives are needed now

The urgent need for new knowledge that has arisen as a result of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 does, however, require immediate research initiatives. We have seen that a small proportion of the projects we are funding have captured the need for new knowledge that the ongoing epidemic demands. The same applies to those seeking funding from us in this year’s calls.

For this reason, the Swedish Research Council now needs to act outside our ordinary long-term funding strategy.

  • We are encouraging and making it easier for researchers who are funded by the Swedish Research Council to temporarily refocus their research, so as to contribute to increased knowledge about the pandemic.
  • We are supporting and taking part in the formulation of a number of international initiatives where Sweden-based researchers contribute with important competence.
  • We are developing and to some extent re-prioritising our ongoing mandates to coordinate initiatives to make research data openly accessible, and to make register data accessible to research. This means that we have unique opportunities to work towards Swedish data being included in a European coordination project for data relating to the ongoing pandemic.

Greater level of ambition in the long term

We also need to raise our level of ambition in the long term. Our Scientific Council for Medicine and Health has therefore decided to earmark 20 million SEK per year for a more long-term initiative lasting until 2024. This forms a good basis for an initiative, but I would like to emphasise that if the research capacity that exists in Sweden is to be utilised in the best possible way, a much larger budget is needed, and extra funding needs to be added. We hope soon to be able to inform about calls that can be part of this effort.

At the same time as we take these initiatives linked to the ongoing pandemic, I would also like to underline how important it is that we now continue to provide broad-based support to undirected researcher-initiated research, and to the research infrastructure that is central for achieving research break-throughs. Only with a broad knowledge basis can we resist and manage the global challenges that we are seeing today, and those we do not yet know will come.

Sven Stafström, Director General, Swedish Research Council

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