STI policy and the COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has had major impacts on STI policies, and disruption is likely to continue as the pandemic progresses. In the longer term, STI policy responses could shape economic transitions towards more sustainable, resilient and inclusive futures. But these efforts could be frustrated by fiscal consolidation due to the economic crisis, tighter public budgets for non-COVID-19 research and innovation, and reduced investments from businesses and investors, all of which can have long-lasting negative effects on countries’ scientific production and their capacities to innovate. In this climate of uncertainty, what are the likely scenarios? The STI Outlook 2020 explores some of these scenarios and their implications for STI policy.

|Mobilising STI to respond to the COVID-19 crisis

Science and innovation play essential roles in improving our scientific understanding of the virus, and in developing vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Both the public and private sectors have poured billions of dollars into these efforts, accompanied by unprecedented levels of global co-operation. The STI Outlook 2020 aims to provide an account of these responses and reflect on their policy implications for future crises.

Providing science advice to policy makers during COVID-19

The clear communication of scientific evidence and advice is fundamental to combating COVID-19, and must be guided by clear  common principles. This is particularly important in the current environment, where the scientific evidence around COVID-19 is incomplete and rapidly evolving. In this situation, science advice necessarily involves considerable uncertainties that need to be openly communicated to policy makers and the public. This policy brief argues that scientific advice that accounts for multiple perspectives and sources of evidence – including from past pandemics – is essential for good policy.

Learn more about our work on "science advice in times of crises".

Finding a vaccine and other treatments

Ensuring equitable and universal access to future vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 is essential. This policy brief discusses the need for international co-operation to focus on the most promising R&D projects, to build large-scale manufacturing capacity, and to establish rules in intellectual property rights and procurement that ensure equitable access, affordability, and supply in sufficient quantities.

The urgent quest for safe and effective COVID-19 treatments also requires international co-operation for conducting clinical trials to test and compare existing and new therapeutics. While many national regulatory authorities have set up streamlined and fast-track clinical trial approval processes, the lack of harmonisation between national regulations is slowing down the implementation of international clinical trials. As outlined in this policy brief, adopting harmonised risk categories – as provided for in the OECD Recommendation on the Governance of Clinical Trials – is a critical step in harmonising clinical trial regulations across countries, and can accelerate the rigorous testing of potential treatments.

See also the New York Times coronavirus vaccine tracker and the New York Times coronavirus drug and treatment tracker.

Sir Jeremy Farrar recently told OECD experts there is no time to waste if we want to protect low and middle-income countries, fragile health systems and marginalised population during the Covid-19 emergency stage. We do not have the time to redesign things at the moment. We're going to have to use what we have and to be much bolder in how we use what we have.

Accelerating the pace of research through open science

In global emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, open science policies can remove obstacles to the free flow of research data and ideas, and thus accelerate the pace of research critical to combating the disease. This policy brief provides an overview of achievements in sharing data, publications, and creating online collaborative platforms, and outlines remaining challenges.

Supporting start-ups and SMEs to help speed up the recovery

Start-ups play a key role in job creation, innovation, and long-run growth in OECD countries, but the COVID-19 crisis is reducing their creation, challenging their survival, and limiting their growth. While policy interventions should tackle short-term challenges – notably supporting short-term liquidity and availability of funding – this policy brief argues that longer-term policies could help limit the detrimental employment and innovation effects of a missing generation of new firms, and help accelerate the recovery.

Focusing specifically on the space sector, this policy brief outlines how space agencies need to fully consider vulnerable smaller and younger firms in their overall crisis responses. For example, they should simplify procedures and adapt eligibility criteria for support and procurement programmes, which would facilitate access to public and private funding.

Using artificial intelligence to combat COVID-19

AI technologies and tools can play key roles in every aspect of the COVID-19 crisis response by:

  • ► understanding the virus and accelerating medical research on drugs and treatments
  • ► detecting and diagnosing the virus, and predicting its evolution
  • ► assisting in preventing or slowing the virus' spread through surveillance and contact tracing responding to the health crisis through personalised information and learning
  • ► monitoring the recovery and improving early warning tools

In order to realise their full potential, however, policy makers must ensure that AI systems are trustworthy and aligned with the OECD AI Principles. This policy brief outlines ways that AI systems can be used to combat COVID-19.

Combatting the disinformation “infodemic”

Online disinformation about COVID-19 has spread rapidly and widely, raising new challenges for policy makers and Internet companies alike. Such false or misleading information, deliberately circulated to cause harm, puts lives at risk and may hamper economic recovery, as well.

As a key channel for this disinformation, online platforms play an important role in limiting its circulation – but they cannot do it on their own. Internet companies, governments, public health organisations and other stakeholders must work together to combat this “infodemic”. This policy brief describes four key actions they can take.

OECD member countries have also sought to counteract COVID-19 disinformation through their own public communications initiatives. Drawing on countries’ responses to the OECD STIP COVID-19 Watch, this policy brief underscores the importance of trust and transparency in public communications, and offers preliminary guidelines on engaging with citizens during the COVID-19 crisis.

|Longer-term opportunities and challenges for STI

The STI Outlook also provides analysis and guidance to policymakers on the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis and policy options. The current economic crisis, for example, is expected to severely curtail firms’ research and innovation expenditures, while debt-laden governments will face multiple, competing demands for financial support. These developments threaten to cause long-term damage to innovation systems at a time when science and innovation are most needed to address the climate emergency, meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and accelerate the digital transformation. Innovation support should therefore comprise an important part of emergency response packages, and should not be reduced under future austerity scenarios.

While governments will need to take measures to protect their innovation systems, the crisis also offers opportunities for reforms. The STI Outlook explores opportunities to do things differently in the future, to avoid a return to “business as usual”, and to shift towards a more ambitious STI policy agenda of “system transformation” that promotes more sustainable, equitable and resilient futures.

Designing economic recovery packages to “build back better”

For the economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis to be durable and resilient, we must avoid a return to a “business as usual” pattern of environmentally destructive investment and activities. If left unchecked, global environmental emergencies such as climate change and biodiversity loss could cause social and economic damages far greater than those caused by COVID-19. This policy brief argues that in order to avoid this, economic recovery packages should be designed to “build back better”.

Not losing sight of other challenges, like climate change

Post-crisis recovery programmes present an opportunity to better align public policies with climate objectives. These policies can be designed to orient investment towards sectors and technologies that can accelerate the transition and improve resilience to future shocks from climate change. This policy brief outlines the immediate steps governments can take to ensure the COVID-19 crisis does not derail their efforts to address pressing environmental challenges, while improving the environmental health and resilience of societies.

Improving the resilience of international production networks

COVID-19 has highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of global value chains (GVCs). Past experience suggests that although international production networks can be disrupted and contribute to the propagation of economic shocks across countries and industries, they can also help firms and countries to recover faster. This policy brief outlines how more resilient production networks can be developed through better risk management strategies at the firm level, and how  governments can support these efforts.

Implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach to human health

Enhancing environmental health will reduce communities’ vulnerability to pandemics, thereby improving overall societal well-being and resilience. This policy brief argues that this should be a key component of the economic recovery and stimulus measures that governments are currently designing.

|Making and doing STI policy differently

Periods of crisis can offer opportunities to revisit existing policy models and practices, and to redirect economies and societies towards more equitable and sustainable futures. The STI Outlook 2020 outlines several novel and emerging frameworks and concepts that STI policymakers and analysts could deploy to “build back better”,  focusing on the challenges that governments face in responding to acute crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Co-ordinating STI policy interventions to tackle COVID-19

The urgency of tackling COVID-19 has led many governments to launch a number of short-notice and fast-tracked initiatives. Without proper co-ordination amongst ministries and agencies, however, they run the risk of duplicating efforts or missing opportunities, resulting in slower progress and economic inefficiencies. This policy brief highlights select national efforts that countries have undertaken to better co-ordinate STI policy responses to COVID-19.

Crowdsourcing STI policy solutions to COVID-19

Governments can deploy non-traditional approaches to STI policy making that draw on society’s collective intelligence to find solutions to the COVID-19 crisis. This policy brief highlights how tools, such as innovation prizes, prediction markets, and open-source solutions are well-suited to immediately respond to today’s crisis.

Preparing socio-economic systems for future shocks

Policymakers often have a linear view of the world, where pulling the right levers will get the economy and society back on track after shocks and crises. This policy brief argues that such an approach ignores how systems interact and how their systemic properties shape these interactions, and proposes an approach based on resilience to prepare socioeconomic systems for future shocks.

Using futures thinking to design better public policies

While it is impossible to predict the future, strategic foresight allows policy makers to explore and prepare for a range of possible developments in order to future-proof strategies, identify new opportunities and challenges, and improve well-being under rapidly evolving circumstances. This policy brief provides resources to help governments and organisations use foresight in their policy making related to COVID-19 and its aftermath.

Learning from international experiences

No country can address a pandemic crisis alone. For instance, countries should co-operate to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine or treatments to all who need them. At the same time, countries can learn a great deal from one another in their policy responses. With this in mind, the OECD has established several cross-country information services that STI policy makers can use when designing their own policies.


OECD monitoring of policy responses to the crisis

► The STIP COVID-19 Watch monitor keeps track of STI policy responses to COVID-19 in OECD economies and beyond in real time. 37 countries and the European Commission had provided details on more than 300 policy initiatives by July 2020. The monitor is maintained by the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy (CSTP).

► A regularly updated list of emergency research funding initiatives from public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, and industry is maintained by the OECD Global Science Forum.

► An experimental flash survey of scientists aims to take the pulse of the state of scientific research and advice amidst the COVID-19 crisis. It is run by the OECD Working Party of National Experts on Science & Technology Indicators, and reports on how scientists, policy makers, and society view the current role of science and its future outlook. More than one thousand people had taken the survey as of July 2020, and its latest results can be explored here.

► A list of open science initiatives related to the COVID-19 pandemic is maintained by the OECD Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy (CSTP).

► An AI-powered COVID-19 watch monitoring tool follows the latest COVID-19 developments in real time. It is maintained by the OECD AI Policy Observatory. 

► Regular analysis of the latest SME policy responses to COVID-19 is carried out by the OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship.

► The Innovative Response Tracker collects countries’ innovative responses to COVID-19. It is maintained by the OECD Observatory of Public Sector Innovation.

More broadly, an OECD dedicated page compiles data, information, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal challenges posed by the impact of COVID-19. It offers a full suite of coronavirus-related information, and includes well over one hundred policy briefs, many of which have been translated into multiple languages. The OECD’s Forum Network also hosts a blog series dedicated to COVID-19.