Open Science Diplomacy to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic

By Katja Mayer

The Coronavirus crisis shows us how fragile and sensitive our living environments are. Everywhere taken for granted infrastructures collapse, or it becomes clear that they are insufficiently available or maintained. It has become apparent that we are far from having an overview of the situation. Everywhere researchers and journalists call for more data to combat the spread of the virus, and for more evidence to understand policy measures. In some areas data is already available, and openly shared, such as the genetic sequence of the virus. In other domains, data are pouring in slowly, are not publicly accessible or simply not available at all, i.a. for the study of the socio-economic determinants of the pandemic. Now Science Diplomacy is needed to support and coordinate the openness and international cooperation of science, industry and policy, so that research can not only help to stop the pandemic and tackle its wider impact, but also to define the necessary principles and protocols for future access to scientific knowledge in times of crisis – and not only then.

All countries are turning to science….

The COVID-19 pandemic and related global measures are defining a “breaching event”, an event so exceptional that it serves to highlight and make visible the normally implicit and hidden structures underlying the apparently smooth functioning of society. When these structures fail, break down, or even overreact, it has a major impact on the future of societies. But it also offers the opportunity to take new and better paths and to approach problems differently.

“All countries are turning to science. “, is stated in the UNESCO dialogue of March 30th, 2020, because political decision-makers everywhere now seem to trust in scientific expertise more than ever. The curve that is to be flattened has become an icon of the crisis. Statistical indicators, social scientific models and epidemiological simulations are being discussed in the media. Big Data’s recent promises of salvation – be it to control the behavioural patterns of societies or to warn each individual of risks by means of mobile tracing applications – point to the uncertainties that are to be eliminated by means of any possible data collection, even if the questions and methods are far from being fully developed.

The scientific community has shown in exemplary fashion how important it is to organise an open and broad exchange of information efficiently in order to understand the situation, and to develop and test a vaccine or necessary medication as quickly as possible. Open Science is central to this, and with it the sharing of results, data and methods. We are experiencing a shift towards Open Science at a speed that was previously unthinkable. It began with the publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 by Chinese scientists in early January 2020 via GenBank – an open access DNA database operated by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information. Since then, gene sequences, data, codes and articles have been continuously published, mostly without delay, as they are openly accessible on preprint servers. Not yet peer-reviewed results are shared with the research community via bioRxiv and medRxiv and via COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 preprints, which can immediately be reviewed and tested by the research community. Datasets such as CORD-19, literature trackers such as LitCovid or the Outbreak Science Rapid PREreview provide access to current activities. Even commercial science publishers are loosening their paywalls in times of crisis and at least partially opening up access to relevant research to everyone online.

The international race for vaccines and drug development is in full swing to save lives and ease global socio-economic constraints. But while research into the virus and the disease across national borders is proceeding at an unmatched pace and with an openness unthinkable before, the transfer of knowledge about the possible social, political, and economic determinants of the pandemic is lagging far behind. What social science models are being used to underpin policy decisions? Which data are available at all, in which quality, and how comparable are they? Access to such data collections and methods has so far been insufficient. The problems are already at the national level; there is a lack of data infrastructures and standards, as well as the necessary protocols and regulations. Furthermore, the little available information is rarely made available by governments in a transparent manner and often in insufficient quality for further use by the scientific community.

On the other hand, one can see how self-organised initiatives and organisations are founded in solidarity, how data is collected and critically questioned, and often alternative approaches produce better solutions and open up new perspectives. Countless new initiatives offer open data sources collecting information from various sources: the Human Coronaviruses Data Initiative, for example, collects patented knowledge about the virus, Wikimedians pool all COVID-19-relevant information and resources in Wikidata, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering shares the collected data in Github, the OECD collects open data sources, the Virus Outbreak Data Network of the Go Fair Initiative develops standards and makes recommendations for infrastructures.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a major test for our science system and for our research and data infrastructures. These infrastructures, such as open science clouds and data commons, must serve the needs of science, policy, and humanity not only in ‘normal times’, but also in times of crisis by providing controlled access to quality data in real time and at scale for a range of scientific- and policy-related responses. (Data Together – Go Fair 2020)

It is not only in the European Union that funds are now being made available for Coronavirus research and the opening up of knowledge; there seems to be no doubt that basic and applied sciences are central to overcoming the crisis. Public research funding bodies such as foundations have understood that openness of results, methods and data is central. However, the problem lies in the lack of international coordination and pooling of the knowledge generated in this way. How can this turn towards Open Science be made sustainable?

Science Diplomacy in times of Covid-19: foster open science and strengthen the global knowledge commons

„To put it simply, governments and foundations are doing all right in finding the money for COVID-19 research. They are doing a very poor job in talking to one another about it, in understanding the problem, in sharing knowledge. In short, they are not coordinating.“ (Helga Nowotny)

A pandemic requires global cooperation based on robust and transparent knowledge. To support and further develop such open approaches beyond the borders of nation states or communities of states, negotiation professionals are needed. Science Diplomacy is now needed to build the necessary bridges between states, science and the industrial sector, so that urgently needed knowledge and robust, high-quality data can be generated and sustainably exchanged.

The complexities of data sharing and reuse in times of crisis are obvious, and they challenge every policy-driven decision-making process. What is needed now is strong leadership and commitment in Science Diplomacy to bring together and make useful the global knowledge on the virus, as well as on the socio-political dimensions of the pandemic. While we urgently need to transform this knowledge into evidence for decision making, both for now and the future, Science Diplomacy should support Open Science in particular from two directions:

  1. The sharing and reuse of data and methods needs robust legal and governance frameworks. Researchers, medical doctors, nurses, NGOs and policy makers need secure, ethical and inclusive workspaces. This also means to help coordinate the knowledge transfer between medical practice, public policy, science and industry. To tackle the current but also future societal challenges like this pandemic, it is of utmost importance to secure a layer of open knowledge, and the respective knowledge commons.
  2. Science diplomacy should help to secure the needed infrastructures for these exchanges, so that there is high quality, comparable data as well es interoperability mechanisms to enable rapid reactions, transparent monitoring and analysis.

There are already very promising initiatives to build on, from large to small scale, from e-infrastructures for research data, to pre-print servers and open access movements, from open hardware maker spaces (e.g. printing elements for clinical ventilators) to bio hackathons. Openness of their activities helps to assess potential solutions and synergies, the more they are findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR), the better. However, we should not forget about the other domains of knowledge that are currently used to create evidence for decision making, like economics, statistics, sociology, psychology, health care and nursing, and many more. Here, accessibility and transparency of data and methods urgently need to be improved. By understanding and harnessing the socio-political power of those research fields, Science Diplomacy could help to raise their profile and to make them more interoperable, transparent and reusable. In those fields in particular we are still lacking robust infrastructures to share data and methods.

It would be inexcusable if the money that is now spent worldwide for research on the pandemic trickled off in local or regional solutions, and we could not create highly diversified and detailed, as well as culture-sensitive learnings on a global level. Therefore, we need more solidarity and leadership at the intersection of science (including the social sciences), policy, the public sector (public health, education, administration), and industries. Science diplomats could help to increase global solidarity at those intersections by promoting the investment in a culture of open science.

Open Science Diplomacy to change for the better

When faced with a crisis such as the current pandemic, societal responses and measures are certainly transformative. They will create lasting changes and push the boundaries. A look into the past shows that great disasters, such as plagues, earthquakes or tsunamis, also changed the way science is done. The Corona crisis shows us even more how important it is to have access to high-quality, well curated data across many knowledge domains.

We can no longer afford a return to normality, the systems have to change, the crisis points in which directions international scientific cooperation is heading, namely towards more openness. It also points to the fact that science should be brought to the national and international negotiating tables: When governments negotiate with health organisations and big tech about quick solutions, such as data infrastructures or smart health apps, Open Science would certainly improve the diversity of perspectives and democratic responsibilities. Science Diplomacy is best suited to support the international efforts for a transition towards Open Science, such as the key points listed by UNESCO in the recent ministerial meeting on March 30:

  • Recognise that the creation and transfer of scientific knowledge are critical to building and sustaining socio-economic welfare and integration in the global economy
  • Support the international scientific community to further demonstrate the spirit and principles of solidarity and knowledge sharing
  • Mobilise the policy makers, civil society and private sector and patent holders to further collaborate with scientists to share scientific information

With Science Diplomacy supporting the international transition towards robust and sustainable Open Science, we will not have to go back to business as usual. We can build infrastructures and relationships on the basis of global solidarity to be prepared, not only for the next crises, but for all the challenges we are facing every day. Open Access, FAIR and Open Data, Open Educational Resources and Open Method, will far better equip us not only to battle COVID-19, but to find solutions to the world’s most pressing issues, such as climate change, sustainable agriculture and green energy.


  • In November 2019 S4D4C organised a Science Diplomacy training workshop focussing on the intersection between Open Science and Science Diplomacy – read more here
  • Katja Mayer’s case report on “Open Science Diplomacy” is another read you might be interested in – find it here

Featured image by
Kirill Sharkovski

Katja Mayer

Posted by Katja Mayer