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How advocacy in a time of crisis can improve the research enterprise

 

I’m a scientist who transitioned into science policy in the last several years. In my current position at the University of California’s Office of Federal Governmental Relations in Washington, DC, I advocate for UC with Congress, the Administration and federal agencies. As part of the research portfolio, one of the things I do is liaise between researchers and policymakers, and I think a lot about how these two groups can support each other, particularly in a time of crisis like COVID-19. 

I am particularly passionate about improving the biomedical research enterprise, and empowering early career researchers (ECRs) to utilize their talents to benefit society, both through innovative research projects while at the bench, and transitioning into careers outside of academia that can broadly benefit society. In order to prepare the next generation of scientists to be successful, we have to focus on training them in effectively communicating with non-scientistic audiences and emphasizing the value of research in different sectors of society.

 

Sustaining the research enterprise during COVID-19

Crisis situations like COVID-19 bring up several issues affecting the research enterprise, including changes in the practice of science and ways in which we are training the biomedical workforce to address societal problems with larger overarching implications beyond the university. Overall, in this climate, scientists should inform policymakers of the scientific evidence needed to advance policies that serve the academic community, as well as arm the general public with knowledge to participate in fighting against this pandemic. We must carefully  consider the broader effects of this pandemic on society as a whole, and the role of each stakeholder in combating it as part of a larger community. 

Advocating for improved policies and funding required to sustain efforts needed to fight this pandemic is equally, if not more important, now than ever before. The challenge is that advocacy largely entails in-person interactions and support garnered through letters and other documents signed by a range of policy decision-makers. While virtual environments hinder meaningful human interactions, technology can allow stakeholders to engage in advocacy in ways that may not traditionally be part of the field. 

Sustaining the research enterprise requires effectively connecting researchers with policymakers. In today’s environment, this may occur through virtual events and video calls with decision-makers in federal and state policy, research funding agencies, higher education associations, and universities. While the immediacy of having to address the pandemic can lead to increased frequency of online meetings, this may be helpful in creating a sense of community across various groups, which may be facilitated by advocacy campaigns allowing our constituents to enact local community change as directed from these higher levels. 

In terms of the research enterprise itself, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been the impetus for a higher level of collaboration between researchers in different disciplines or between academics and professionals in other sectors, in order to most effectively combat the pandemic using tools and strategies that no one group could do alone. The pandemic also has the potential to speed up the pace of biomedical research by requiring faster and more open access publications to be available in order to reach a resolution for this crisis in a timely manner. 

 

Training the biomedical workforce in a virtual environment

Switching to a virtual environment for advocacy purposes can change how the research enterprise operates in the future, and how we can best showcase the value of scientific findings to those with decision-making power. At the federal level, advocacy efforts to emphasize the importance of research to policymakers can help infuse massive amounts of funding into COVID-19 projects in universities across the country. While we have seen some of this already occurring, we should also keep in mind the need to support other aspects of the pandemic beyond the research projects. These include making COVID-19 materials more widely available to the community, putting in place the infrastructure needed to sustain both academic work and stakeholder connections outside the university, and ensuring that ECRs and faculty members continue to advance in their careers goals and engage in professional development.

Funding agencies play a critical role in ensuring the sustainability of the research enterprise and training the biomedical workforce. In addition to funding research projects, we need to consider how training the workforce continues at home, which may ultimately change how we view the education needed for ECRs to succeed. My hope is that this practice will emphasize the need to focus more on professional development for ECRs, leading to modern adaptations of the educational system to accommodate effective virtual learning. All of these aspects have the ability to change both the internal workings and external effects of academic research and education across the globe.

During this time, virtual environments can also provide opportunities to maintain mental health and well-being for academics, and offer ways to engage in self-care from experts in the field. This area is particularly important now, given the high level and quick speed of advocacy that needs to occur both federally and locally in order to support the global continuation of academic research and education, which can become taxing. My hope is that this emphasis on self-care for academics will shift the community towards focusing more on the person as a whole as opposed to just the scientist, and that mental health will become a vital part of how we train the researcher workforce in the future.

 

Enacting local community change during the pandemic

Besides the academic community and policymakers who can make decisions on how to address the pandemic, the other really important segment of the constituency that needs to have a voice in the matter is the public. We need to keep in mind what motivates the public to act, and provide them with evidence-based research, in addition to practical ways in which they can impact their local communities regardless of where they are in the world. To this end, it will also be really important to train scientists in describing their research to the public, and emphasize the need for them to develop effective communication skills during their scientific training.

Notably, the COVID-19 crisis has also resulted in significant global disparities, in particular for segments of the population lacking that may not have access to healthcare facilities or may not be in close proximity to large universities where they can be tested. Many individuals in the community also may not be able to engage in social distancing, or may have to continue going to work under these conditions, therefore exacerbating the impact of the pandemic in specific areas around the globe. Addressing these disparities through advocacy efforts is a necessary endeavor both at the federal level and the state level, enabling decision-makers to enact effective policies and provide sufficient funding to local communities where help is most needed. 

 

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to drastically change multiple aspects of the research enterprise in a positive way, as well as amplify the impact of biomedical research and education in local communities. Therefore, advocacy for biomedical research and education must continue in this virtual environment, and has the potential to bring together various stakeholders for the common good. 

 

This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California.

Featured image is from Pixabay and is used under a Creative Commons License 2.0 (CC BY 2.0).

 

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