Reflections on the pandemic, looking to the future

A visit from Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC, to Diamond Light Source

The past 18 months have provided undoubtable challenges for the research community, but there have also been important lessons for the future.

I am delighted to be authoring the first blog post in the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) newly launched series. It has been a while since I last wrote, and over the past 18 months the world has shifted in ways we could not previously have imagined.

Little could I have envisaged at the beginning of March 2020 that it would be almost 18 months before I would be meeting colleagues face to face again, and yet it was. What has struck me time and again is the absolute dedication and resilience that our research community and BBSRC staff have demonstrated throughout.

Many people contributed directly and indirectly to the research effort to tackle the pandemic. You supported the UKRI COVID-19 rapid response call through applications, accelerated reviews and panel meetings, as well as volunteering to assist in diagnostic labs and donating equipment.

The benefits and pitfalls of the virtual world

The progress made in understanding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 has been unprecedented for an infectious disease. This has demonstrated the very best of UK research and innovation and showing the critical importance of investing for the long-term in our research capabilities.

Working remotely has presented its challenges, yet humans are ingenious beings and while we have missed in-person interactions, many of us have taken up the opportunity of attending virtual events around the globe, that would otherwise not have been possible.

For me, on International Women’s Day in March this year, I was able to join other presenters at a conference organised by the National Institute of Plant Genome Research New Dehli, India in the morning. Then, I made it to Harwell for a virtual visit to the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the afternoon (the timing of which, I felt, was very fitting), and all from my own home workspace.

However, one of the things I am looking forward to is reconnecting with the researchers we support and hearing first-hand about their latest discoveries. Those chance conversations during face-to-face visits have been hard to recreate in the virtual environment.

Lessons for the future

I am an eternal optimist and sincerely hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. As we slowly retrace our steps into the wider world there are some key lessons that I think we would do well to carry into the future.

The first, as our response to COVID-19 has demonstrated, is that with focus, resolve and a collective endeavour, research and innovation can rapidly advance understanding and find solutions to significant challenges. I’ve heard multiple university colleagues explaining how researchers across disparate disciplines have joined together in multi-disciplinary teams to focus on a specific aspect of coronavirus research. This is a useful template for the future.

Nothing is more pressing now than limiting further anthropogenic impacts on the climate and environment and seeking ways to mitigate the impacts already being experienced. This is where I feel biology has so much to offer the interdisciplinary research needed to achieve net zero targets and I find it hard to imagine a net zero future without bio-based solutions being central.

It is imperative that we shift from our reliance on fossil-derived carbon and consider carbon from alternative sources, including bio-derived and from waste. There are some great examples that illustrate the potential:

These examples highlight the potential of Engineering Biology: a key priority technology for BBSRC working with other councils across UKRI and highlighted in the government’s recently published Innovation Strategy.

Supporting equality, diversity and inclusion

Second, working remotely, with all meetings online, has been a great leveller and has supported greater inclusion. I hope we can build on this as we experiment with hybrid ways of working.

This is particularly important to me since I became UKRI’s Executive Champion for People, Culture and Talent at the end of July 2021. This is an area that I am passionate about, especially as someone from an under-represented community who was the first in her family to attend university.

In the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to engaging in debate around UKRI’s and BBSRC’s approaches to supporting equality, diversity and inclusion, alongside our role in delivering aspects of the BEIS R&D People and Culture Strategy. I would welcome examples of initiatives members of our community have trialled so that we can build a good understanding of the most effective interventions and share these more broadly. Do get in touch!

In the coming weeks and months, a diverse set of authors will be blogging on a range of topics through the BBSRC channel. Please do share your comments and thoughts with us.

Top image:  Credit: Diamond Light Source

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