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We Need a New International Organization: The Science Readiness Reserves

COVID-19 is a wake-up call for institutional renewal and reform. The only way to face the uncertainties of the future, including the risk of future pandemics, is to build more, stronger public-private partnerships, and on a global basis.

So we call for a new international organization – the Science Readiness Reserves (SRR). Led by scientists from academia and industry from around the world, it would be supported by policymakers. The scientists would proactively assess the risks and likely consequences of future global threats and give us plenty of time to prepare for them. As a result, the SRR would enable us often to better respond when an emergency does strike, instead of trying to improvise and deal with it in the moment, as most of the world has done in response to COVID-19. This body would help us minimize future disasters’ impact – both in lives lost and livelihoods threatened. 

Such partnerships are rare – but they shouldn’t be. They work, and they should be the norm. We believe they are the only effective way to confront pandemics and other future disasters, be they a mega drought, an asteroid impact over a city, a deadly super-volcano eruption, a devastating tsunami, or a nuclear power plant explosion.

Such partnerships generate results thanks to the strategic collaboration of players, focused on a common goal. We’re seeing powerful examples amidst the current pandemic. In early March, 33-year-old physician-turned-venture capitalist Tom Cahill organized a conference call with his investors to discuss ideas for fighting COVID-19. He expected just a handful to join. Instead, there were hundreds, and they brought along scientists and medical experts. The call quickly led to a successful public-private collaboration, Scientists to Stop COVID-19. Its goal: to find treatments for COVID-19 faster than following the lengthy traditional approach that involves the FDA and numerous trials before a new drug gets on the market – all while maintaining safety. Cahill successfully connected leading scientists with influential business leaders who in turn put them in touch with the White House. Those connections helped them remove a piece of “political” red tape that blocked international cooperation and coordination.

Another example of a new and effective public-private partnership is the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. It has enabled scientists, industry leaders and policymakers to give free access to supercomputing resources to researchers fighting coronavirus.

In these two instances, the catalyst was the deadly coronavirus. It prompted us to act. Even technology rivals put their differences aside and worked together; the HPC Consortium has united IBM, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Dell and many more. On a wider scale, this framework could span many probable future ‘known unknowns.’

Not long ago, we lived through SARS, Zika, and Ebola; but despite that, we weren’t at all prepared for the much deadlier impact of the coronavirus. And when it struck, governments frantically put together emergency committees to discuss whether to impose a lockdown and when, or not at all, or whether to trust the idea of herd immunity or disregard it. Nations all acted differently, and the countries that imposed lockdowns too late or refused to do it altogether found themselves hit much harder than those that shut themselves down promptly.

Even the Scientists to Stop COVID-19 and the HPC Consortium, however promising, were launched without any advance planning. Their structure does not benefit from properly-thought-through government policy, resource allocation and distribution, and other typical emergency response measures. And with any major global risk, there is a crucial economics element. The toll the global economy has taken during the current pandemic is proof.

That’s where the Science Readiness Reserves should come in. Such a global body, ideally funded by governments as well as privately, would enable advanced planning, spanning many different areas of possible emergencies. It would have a leadership team – a sort of executive council composed of top institutional leaders and experts in different scientific fields. And it would have different departments. One could be focused on computing (similar to the HPC Consortium); another – on sequencing technology; yet another one – on data aggregation and open data collaboration; and so on. Scientists worldwide would submit proposals for research targeting a certain global risk, and a specific department would review them, prioritizing those addressing the most likely ‘known unknowns’. The team would then be matched with the right facility or another team working on a similar project. This way, the SRR would give researchers worldwide access to cutting edge technologies many scientists don’t have in their lab, from supercomputers and AI to quantum computers.

While at the moment there are organizations addressing specific global emergencies, the SRR’s structure would recognize that talent as well as scientific and technological resources are highly distributed across government, academia, and industry. A much more networked approach based on capabilities would make it much easier to tap into the right talent and expertise. After all, no single institution has enough experts and facilities to address all global crises.

On top of that, the new organization would promote open-source global data collaboration, crucial for innovation. Today, 55 percent of companies frequently use open source code in commercial products, and many highly successful business models such as Red Hat, MongoDB and Cloudera have been built on open source software. But sharing of software is not enough; data must be shared, too. Open access to health, mobility and other data is critical to reduce a disaster’s impact on the society and economy.

Taiwan shows what’s possible. It established a data-centric public health response mechanism after SARS in 2003. When COVID-19 broke out, Taiwanese authorities quickly integrated their immigration and customs database with a national health insurance database to generate real time diagnostic aids to be used during clinical visits. They also used the merged public data to enforce travel and quarantine rules – cutting the rate of infections and deaths. They used QR code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel destinations over the two previous weeks. 

The Science Readiness Reserves, if it were embraced by governments, would give top scientists a direct connection to policymakers. This way, when a specific disaster would strike, the policymakers could help expedite FDA and other approvals, whizzing research results through previously-set-up emergency regulatory frameworks. Governments would also be urged to have funds allocated for such an emergency, enabling a much faster path to relief, as well as national stockpiles of equipment such as PPE to avoid shortages. Some governments had such facilities. Many did not.

Whether we like it or not, there will be other disasters. Public-private partnerships work, and it’s time to apply them on a global scale. The moment to start getting ready is now.

About the authors:

Dario Gil is the director of IBM Research, one of the world’s largest and most influential corporate research labs, with over 3,000 scientists at 19 locations on six continents.

Matt Langione is a Principal with the Boston Consulting Group, and one of the leaders of the firm’s Growth Tech practice.

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