How science, technology and innovation can help respond to COVID-19

By Andrew Wyckoff

Director, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a crisis unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Governments face unprecedented challenges as they seek to stem the spread of the virus in the short term, enact measures to support economic recovery, and build resilience to future social and economic disruptions. Science, technology and innovation (STI) are instrumental for achieving these goals in a timely and affordable way, but also as tools to shape the impact so that it moves us towards long-term goals of economic and social sustainability.

As the crisis has unfolded, we’ve seen a marked acceleration in the digital transformation. Social distancing measures have forced us to spend more time living and working online, testing network infrastructure, disrupting businesses, and raising risks around cybersecurity and consumer protection. At the same time, some governments are turning to apps and other digital tools to help track and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, harnessing the power of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), but also raising new questions around user privacy. And the race to develop treatments for the virus is inspiring more open data sharing and collaboration among the scientific community, while underscoring the importance of robust R&D systems. 

At the OECD, we are working closely with governments as they navigate this rapidly changing landscape, providing data, analysis and recommendations to help shape policy. We are tracking and analysing STI-related policy responses across our membership and beyond, and have published targeted policy briefs on what steps countries can take to overcome current challenges – both in the short and long-term.

Science, technology and innovation policy has a clear and crucial role to play in the immediate response to COVID-19.

STI policy has a clear and crucial role to play in the immediate response to COVID-19. Governments across the world have already begun using geolocation data, biometrics and mobile apps to trace infection chains, and AI tools have been used to respond to the crisis on several fronts – from detecting and diagnosing the virus to improving early warning tools. Such measures could play a helpful role in limiting the human and economic costs of the pandemic, but they also raise important concerns around privacy and data governance, as many leading civil society organisations and experts have noted.

As governments increasingly collaborate with tech companies and the academic community to develop mobile apps and other track-and-trace solutions, they should take care to ensure that privacy protections are embedded in their systems by default, and that personal data is only retained for as long as necessary to fulfil their purpose. Policy makers should also ensure that AI systems are trustworthy and aligned with the OECD AI Principles. They should respect human rights and privacy; be transparent, explainable, robust, secure and safe; and actors involved in their development and use should remain accountable.

While public health authorities work to more fully map the spread of COVID-19, scientists and researchers are racing to gain a better understanding of how the virus behaves, and to develop effective treatments. Open science policies can help accelerate their efforts by removing obstacles to the free flow of relevant scientific data and ideas. Although global sharing and collaboration of research data has reached unprecedented levels during the current crisis – the full genome of COVID-19 was published in an open-access publication barely a month after the first patient was admitted into Wuhan hospital – significant challenges remain.

STI policy makers can take a number of steps to enhance open science during the crisis, including the implementation of adequate data governance models, interoperable standards, and sustainable data sharing agreements among the public sector, private sector and civil society. It is equally important for experts to communicate scientific evidence to policy makers and the public in full transparency – especially as the evidence base on COVID-19 remains incomplete and dynamic. Scientific advice that takes into account multiple perspectives and sources of evidence – including from past pandemics – is essential for good policy.

In addition to strengthening front-line responses to COVID-19, STI policy makers face key challenges around network infrastructure and security. Demand for broadband communication services has soared as the current crisis has unfolded, with some operators experiencing up to a 60% increase in bandwidth as business and daily life has shifted online. Network operators and content providers have so far successfully maintained services, but additional short-term measures are needed to further enhance network stability and resilience, and to reduce the digital divide. Network operators need prioritised access to data centres and equipment, and could upgrade their interconnection capacity with other providers to prevent congestion. Governments could also consider releasing additional spectrum on a temporary basis to alleviate congestion or approving temporary commercial spectrum transactions between providers to leverage unused spectrum. As mobility restrictions proliferate and endure across the globe, it is critically important to ensure that our network infrastructure is strong enough to keep us connected.

This is a truly global crisis that demands a global response.

As the time we spend online has increased, so too have the online threats that we face. Malicious actors are taking advantage of the crisis to launch ransomware and phishing campaigns, targeting individuals, businesses and even hospitals. Governments have an important role to play in raising  awareness,  monitoring  the  threat  landscape  and  publishing  easily accessible guidelines for digital security hygiene – particularly for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and small- and medium-sized enterprises. Vulnerable consumers also face increased threats from online scams, price gouging and other fraduluent commercial practices that have spread during the crisis. In response, government agencies, businesses and civil society must redouble their efforts to protect and inform consumers, while strengthening co-operation to identify and mitigate harmful practices.  

It is difficult, at this point, to gauge how dramatically this crisis will reshape economies and societies; but there are steps that policy makers can take to build resilience in industry and R&D to more effectively respond to future crises. As countries shift their industrial structures and innovation efforts to address immediate challenges raised by COVID-19, they should also orient longer-term policies around building resilience to future shocks. Reinforcing and expanding investment in R&D will be key to this effort, particularly with regard to future environmental and public health crises. COVID-19 presents complex and inter-connected challenges across virtually every aspect of public policy, with potentially far-reaching implications for how we live and work.

At the OECD, we remain committed to helping countries navigate this rapidly changing landscape, and will continue to publish the latest data, insights and policy recommendations on our Coronavirus hub. This is a truly global crisis that demands a global response, and STI will play an integral role in shaping the future that awaits us. 

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