COVID-19: What do funders consider relevant research? © UNICEF/UNI317998/Choufany

COVID-19: What do funders consider relevant research?

As emergency calls for research funding are made to tackle the COVID-19, some difficult questions come to mind: What types of knowledge are relevant? What types of research should be prioritised?

In this blog we review a sample of funding calls and find out some contrasting research agendas supported in different agencies; however, biomedical research seems dominant in many calls. We suggest that more public debate on research priorities is needed given high uncertainty and the broad social consequences of the pandemic.

Mapping how funding agencies understand COVID-19 related research

Governments and funding agencies across the globe are currently funding large amounts (possibly billions of Euros) in research calls aimed at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Their goal is to quickly produce knowledge that helps provide solutions and supports decision making.

However, since the pandemic is affecting so many facets of society, what exactly is understood as research to address the COVID-19 crisis? There are areas of research that are obviously relevant, such as virology, immunology, clinical research and epidemiology.

Yet, there are also other forms of knowledge which are relevant regarding the effects of the virus in its environment and the social world. This is the case for knowledge on hospital management, on risk communication, on the use of scientific evidence in policy, and at a broader level, on the wider effects of the pandemic on the economy, pollution, etcetera.

Therefore, the collective response to COVID-19 and its consequences should not be based only on medical considerations, but also on broader social, economic and environmental understandings. Jochem Zuijderwijk made the argument in a previous Madtrics blog that ‘we should be careful not to overlook inputs from different scientific fields that could provide important insights in the current crisis.’ While there are no effective therapies, some of the most effective ‘treatments’ so far have been behavioural (‘social distancing’) and resource management (distribution of ventilators). Hence, it would be strange not to rely on the social and behavioural sciences.

Under limited resources and time pressure, which types of research should be funded? Past experiences suggest that without explicit effort and strategies to consider various forms of knowledge, attention ends up concentrated in narrow forms of expertise to the exclusion of the others. Indeed, this analysis provides some preliminary evidence that COVID19 funding is concentrated in biomedical approaches. It is therefore important to pay attention to diversity in the types of knowledge mobilised for facing the crisis.

Different framings in funding calls for COVID-19

In order to find out what forms of research are being considered for funding, we have gathered and analysed emergency COVID-19 calls of various funding agencies across some countries. This is an exploratory analysis based on a sample of calls, using mainly the texts in the funding calls rather than the funded projects. Although we are not domain experts, the primary concerns of funders seem relatively clear, and this partial sample already shows revealing differences across calls.

The summary of the calls examined is available in this table:

Open Tableau table in a new tab

For the sake of simplicity, we have divided the funding calls into three classes, depending on which aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic they focus on:

  • Focus on health responses, such as vaccines, diagnostics and epidemiological models.
  • Broader public health considerations, such risk communication and misinformation, social dynamics and prevention of stigma.
  • Studies on the social consequences of the crisis.

Dominant framings focused on health responses

The first and most prevalent framing of calls for funding conceptualizes COVID-19 as a technical problem in need of biomedical solutions or healthcare policies. This can be seen for example in the calls by the European Commission, in Catalonia or Brazil.

These calls support, on the one hand research in therapies, vaccines and diagnostics, i.e. solutions based on biomedical expertise; and on the other hand, they also fund epidemiological work, modelling and clinical studies. Scientometric mapping suggests a strong contrast between these two perspectives (biological vs. clinical/epidemiological), but many funding agencies include both in the same call. Other funding agencies, such as the US National Institutes of Health, make more specific calls for technological development or public health interventions.

A key question in research priority setting in pandemics is the relative investment in technical biomedical solutions versus research on healthcare policy and systems. The balance between these options in COVID-19 cannot yet be assessed since few calls have released details of projects funded. From the information available, it seems likely that biomedical (vaccine and drug) development will capture the lion’s share of public funding. For example, a coalition of large charities has set up a COVID Therapeutics Accelerator with a US$125 million of seed funding to support drug development.

Experts point out that delivery of new therapies or vaccines may take at least 12 or 18 months and that pharmaceuticals’ investments in this area are far larger than public investments (e.g. amounting to 75% of vaccines). Therefore, there is room for debate on whether public funding should support more research, in relative terms, on healthcare policy and systems -- which have proved crucial in the emergency response, in lockdown policies.

Opening to broader public health considerations

A broader interpretation of the relevant knowledge to address COVID-19 sees the pandemic as more than just a biological, technical or managerial issue, acknowledging that socio-political contexts are as much a component of the pandemic as the disease itself.

A first broadening step, while keeping within a health-centred framing, is to study how social environments have an effect on health outcomes during a disease. Consider, for example, the response of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This funding call also includes research in the categories of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostic and healthcare management. However, it also funds many projects that focus on issues such as social dynamics, risk communication, and trust. For example, some projects look at how forms of discrimination against Chinese-Canadians may be exacerbated due to the COVID-19 pandemic; others at sociological considerations of trust in public spaces or at the propagation of false or faulty information within media in response to COVID-19. This is a noticeably broader interpretation of what forms of research are deemed important within the COVID-19 pandemic.

Framings beyond health: on the social effects and responses to COVID-19

Finally, there are also funding calls for research focused on the social and economic dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis, the effects of policy responses, and the overall consequences for other aspects of societal – including educational, economic and psychological – well being.

Some research councils, such as the Dutch Research Council (NWO) or the US National Science Foundation (NSF) have general ‘response mode’ calls which have included a few projects studying the effects of the pandemic beyond health. The NWO has funded research both on wider health issues (as discussed above), as well as on the effects on family life, on the emotional wellbeing of adolescents and on social inequalities. The NSF is supporting a project which is addressing the pandemic through science education in primary school.

The Mexican funding agency (CONACYT) has made, besides the usual call with a health framing, a call dedicated to universal access to knowledge. This call aims to fund the development of public science communication to be used during the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to improve social appropriation of knowledge. The call funds contents for various forms of science education ranging from infographics to performing arts and music, especially on problems such as domestic violence, addictions, sexual health and lifestyle habits that may be under stress during the pandemic.

More debate is needed on funding priorities

In the last 20 years, pandemic outbreaks have been followed by sudden surges in targeted funding. During these funding surges, there has been rather limited systematic thinking about the research priorities in the face of urgency. Given the breadth of the COVID-19 crisis, the funding research reaction has been extremely fast and large. Since social life has been disrupted in many diverse ways and sectors, a variety of research agendas are relevant to understand and address consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

This preliminary analysis has shown that most research calls on COVID-19 are framed in terms of quick health responses aimed at technical biomedical solutions (drugs, vaccines and diagnostics) and studies on epidemiology and healthcare policies. We have also found some funding calls with a substantial budget for projects on broader public health issues such as risk communication, misinformation and stigmatisation. A few agencies have also provided funding to study and respond to the broader consequences of COVID-19, such as through science communication programmes.

In spite of the diversity of research options observed, the overall funding landscape seems strongly focussed on biomedical approaches. Yet, the relative investment that other options need is seldom discussed in public. This is a shame since priority setting in public R&D is likely to benefit from more openness.

This week, the Nuffield Bioethics Council published critical considerations regarding the use of expertise for COVID-19 policies. We believe that they apply to calls for funding as well. In particular, funding decisions might improve by showing the goals and ethical considerations behind the calls, by engaging with wider expertise and stakeholders, and by thus broadening the range of perspectives gathered.

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