Have faith in our researchers

Coronavirus test samples in a lab in China. PHOTO: THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Our current under-standing and response to the ongoing "corona crisis" are results of extensive, fast-track research. The possible transfer of the new coronavirus from wild animals to human; its symptoms, spread patterns, and treatments; the need for social or physical distancing, for example, were all discovered by researchers. The new knowledge was then quickly picked up by the World Health Organization (WHO) and countless government and private agencies in order to widely broadcast to the public.

Besides fighting and surviving Covid-19, we do benefit from research at every point of our lives. Sometimes these are so deeply ingrained in our lifestyle—ballpoint pens, pen-drives, mobile apps or antibiotics—that we do not even remember these are products of experiments and research. But what is research anyway? One of the most amazing answers to this question was given by Hungarian biochemist Dr Albert Szent-Gyorgyi—"Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and think what nobody has thought."

The quote from Dr Szent-Gyorgyi, who received a Nobel Prize in 1937 for his research on Vitamin C, essentially separates researchers from the rest of us. In addition to thinking differently, researchers tell the world of something "new" that nobody knew before. In the ongoing pandemic, we are seeing such creation of new knowledge in real time on TV, newspapers and social media.

Further to adding new knowledge, researchers are also part of a "knowledge legacy". If we have been building a path called "knowledge", our individual pieces of research are the stones we lay on it. Our pieces would not fit or mean anything if previous stones had not already been laid out. For example, knowledge of past epidemics and pandemics (Spanish flu, SARS, Ebola) is helping us to face the current crisis. This connection across time makes researchers, and their work, timeless. They all travel towards the "horizon of the unknown" by appearing at different points of time.

Needless to say, researchers belong to diverse groups—they are divided by their countries, academic disciplines and the institutions they work in, as well as the philosophical points of view they hold. But as they do research, they all follow some basic standards and practices that bind them together. Researchers identify a problem to be solved, a question to be answered, or a situation to be explored. They choose appropriate methods to collect data or conduct experiments. They analyse the information, collate the results, and tell us what the new knowledge—be it a solution, an answer, or an insight—means to us.

Although their main task is research, it is only part of a much larger arrangement called "research system", made up of four interconnected components. Before a researcher takes up a research project, she must look at the past research—this is called "accessing research", the first component of a research system—to learn the current knowledge we have on a particular research topic and what knowledge gaps we need to fill in. Then comes designing the research and actually conducting it to find new knowledge—the second part of a research system.

Once the work is done, a researcher has to share the newly gathered knowledge through research reports, academic journal articles, conference presentations, press conferences or other media—the third part of the research system, called "communicating research". This leads us to the final part of a research system—"utilising research". The new knowledge now needs to be used to improve our environment, society and systems of knowledge. Only by using the research outputs can we have an impact—the ultimate goal of any research.

The relationships among the components of a research system is quite obvious in the corona crisis. Once a research, for example, on Covid-19 patient management in China, is published, it becomes part of the global research pool or "knowledge legacy" of coronavirus, and guides actions and new investigations in this discipline. Similarly, as the research findings from China are used, say in Spain, the Spanish experience can further help the doctors and researchers in Bangladesh, for example, to improve the critical care management in its ICUs for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. In this way, researchers of a discipline, despite being spread out all over the world, essentially work together in making our knowledge more useful and impactful.

Unfortunately, we often ignore what researchers say. Our indifference towards scientific information produced by researchers often has nothing to do with our education, our position in society, or the country we live in. Our sheer arrogance, negligence, and drive for economic profits are to be blamed. That is why, we have seen many oil companies and heads of governments undermine climate change research; last summer, we saw the Bangladeshi dairy industry and related ministry challenging research on pasteurised milk adulteration; and, more recently, national governments downplayed the warnings from scientists of the possible coronavirus pandemic.

As I write this, the total number of confirmed Covid-19 case has passed 2.4 million in 210 countries and territories, with over 165,000 deaths. As a third of the world's population is now on lockdown, countless brave scientists, technicians, nurses, doctors and other professionals are restlessly working around the world and around the clock to test for the virus, to treat patients, and to lay to rest the lives that have been lost. But we should not forget numerous researchers all over the globe who are working in the background to improve the treatment and to find a cure for the deadliest infectious disease of our lifetime.

The media is now flooded with assumptions and predictions of what the world would look like after the pandemic is over—a new world with new global leadership, new economic structures, novel development models, and perhaps, a contactless lifestyle? As the pandemic is far from over, only time will tell what changes it will really bring in to this world, if any.

However, I really want to believe that our all-consuming efforts in this chaotic and panic-laden emergency will rejuvenate our trust in research and researchers. This will help us to realise why we must show patience and invest in research continuously to overcome numerous societal challenges, not only of human health, but also in different arenas of sustainable development, including social justice, economic development, and environmental sustainability. I want to believe that this crisis will lead us to create and practice a worldwide culture where policy decisions are made based upon research and evidence, and are not influenced by prejudice, ego and selfishness.


Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah.