Coronavirus: Why we need an international 'Team Science' to speed recovery from this crisis – comment

The complex challenges of the coronavirus pandemic require global collaboration, write professors Günter M Ziegler, Francesco Ubertini, Peter Mathieson, Jari Niemelä, Wojciech Nowak and Luc Sels.

Academics in Helsinki, above, are working with colleagues from Edinburgh University and six others in Europe (Picture: iStockphoto/Getty Images)

Universities have proven their value amid this coronavirus crisis. People across the world are increasingly putting their trust in research-based expertise. However, our current knowledge is neither complete nor enough.

Tremendous efforts are under way to better understand how the Sars-CoV-2 virus and others behave, how pandemics evolve in a highly connected world, and how medical treatment of infections can be improved.

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Future research will also be needed to assess how societies and people have adapted to the current exceptional circumstances, how they may have changed in the process, and how they may become more resilient to cope with future crises.

These may very well be of different nature, not to mention climate change explicitly. Scientific advice for policy is of crucial importance, not only when health care systems are under pressure.

Universities indeed have worked hard and proven their value. But have we done enough?

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The truth is that we very much had to focus on our home turf due to the force with which the pandemic hit us and the speed with which we had to take important decisions. But neither a single institution nor one country alone will be able to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.

The complexity of the challenges requires an international ‘Team Science’ approach with large consortia, leveraging the strengths, expertise and perspective of scientists from different fields and different countries.

Concerted effort and considerable investment will be required to future proof international networks, organisations and their activities. The wide-reaching implications of the global economic crisis will require new skills sets, re-training of the workforce and new ways of learning.

The European Universities initiative, which our universities joined last year, offers a promising framework to focus some of these efforts and investments in international education and research.

In 2018, we jointly launched Una Europa, an alliance of our eight universities. As epitomised by our name, Una Europa, our alliance stretches across all parts of Europe, speaks nine different languages and works across cultures and systems. Despite our recent focus on our home turf, Una Europa has helped us to remain connected while tackling the same or similar problems. And it is thanks to our cross-border identity and joint commitment to work towards a European virtual campus that we had the opportunity to pilot and kick-start some of the crucial initiatives in education and research required in post-coronavirus times.

Our joint research focuses on areas vital for improving resilience and sustainability of societies. ‘One Health’, the newest addition to our focus areas, promotes networked thinking about health to improve disease detection, prevention and treatment.

As proven by the Covid-19 pandemic, health challenges that stem from the complex interaction between humans, animals, plants and ecosystems call for a review of existing concepts and methods. Tighter collaboration across sectors and disciplines – life sciences, public health and social sciences – is at the heart of One Health.

On the educational front, all universities must now take important decisions for the academic year to come. More programmes will be offered online, and new learning formats will be introduced, blending virtual and physical worlds.

We remain strongly committed to delivering high quality education – on campus if we can, off campus because we can. While the past few weeks have shown that we can go ‘digital-only’ very quickly, we have also realised how irreplaceable direct contact is, be it among students, between students and lecturers or among staff.

Always ensuring safety first, our commitment also fully applies to our communities of international students and staff. The current crisis requires us to be creative and innovative, as we have been for centuries, for instance, by turning ‘mobility’ into ‘connectivity’. Our students may not have been able to travel, but this has not prevented them from collaborating across our eight countries and with local partners in what we called Una.Ten, Transform Emergency Now.

During this ten-day, pan-European hackathon, our students worked with, for example, cities, museums and transport providers to develop solutions to specific Covid-19-related challenges.

More than ever, we are committed to driving a movement towards more international, collaborative experiences in teaching, training and learning. Experiences, which are open and inclusive for students, professionals and citizens.

Universities have done a lot in this crisis. But we will do more, internationally. Because collaboration across borders, cultures, languages and disciplines is the only way to recover from the crisis and to build resilience for a potential next one. This gives us new momentum to deliver our University of the Future – a challenge we are ready to take up. Jointly.

Signed by Professor Günter M. Ziegler, president of the Freie Universität Berlin; Professor Francesco Ubertini, rector, Alma mater studiorum Università di Bologna; Professor Peter Mathieson, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh; Professor Jari Niemelä, rector of the Helsingin yliopisto; Professor Wojciech Nowak, rector of the Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie; and Professor Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven.

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