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Interview

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"Wait and see doesn't work!"

Eurac Research President, Roland Psenner, on lessons learned from the pandemic for the next global emergency - climate change.

lensw0rld
© Adobe Stock | lensw0rld
01 June 2021

Roland Psenner, President of Eurac Research, on his own personal lesson from the pandemic crisis, the role of research, and why the real global challenge still lies ahead.

In your eyes, what is the most important lesson from Corona pandemic?

Roland Psenner: First, that any knowledge is only provisional. Anyone who follows research on the virus sees new hypotheses emerging all the time – which are often quickly refuted. Or certain aspects of the virus are proven, but how they affect its action in our bodies is still pure speculation. An interesting question currently under discussion, for example, is whether viral RNA can be incorporated into the human genome. Which again shows me how little we still know about SARS-CoV-2. Secondly, it dawned on me - once again - that we are too slow, infinitely tedious and sometimes even reluctant to learn: we implement newly gained knowledge too slowly, we run to catch up, always, behind the development, or, as the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland says: "To stay in place, you must run as fast as you can." Third, in retrospect, I must conclude that the West (Europe, USA, etc.) has failed, which no one sums up as clearly as the French author Tomas Pueyo. Since his initial analysis more than a year ago, it was clear to me that we needed to test, track, isolate until an effective vaccine became available. Exactly what many Asian countries (Taiwan, South Korea, etc.) were successful in achieving. I am now more convinced than ever that individual personal freedom must be restricted for a specific, well-defined, and well-justified period of time in order to preserve the freedom of all. Fourth, I have come to understand that zoonotic diseases are overwhelmingly the result of the climate and biodiversity crises. The larger crisis that I have been dealing with for 30 years is manifesting itself in fast motion as a pandemic. And unfortunately, we are managing the climate crisis as poorly as the corona crisis: too slowly, too inconsistently.

Is it all doom and gloom?

Psenner: I'm not giving up hope that we'll finally understand why wait and see doesn't work.

How have your views changed since a year and a half ago?

Psenner: In January 2021, like many others, I thought that SARS-COV-2, like SARS or MERS, would be limited to a few Asian countries. With the first cases in Europe, it was clear to me that we as Eurac Research had to act quickly, as we bear the responsibility for 500 employees and their families. However, I see the consistent reaction of Eurac Research's management the same way now as I did in March 2020: it was appropriate to the scale of the pandemic and the speed with which the virus was spreading. We didn't get everything right, but we got most things right, and that's because we relied on scientific facts and could count on excellent staff.

Roland Psenner, President of Eurac Research: "I see the pandemic as a wake-up call to invest more in local research and innovation."© Eurac Research | Ivo Corrà

Do you think this experience will also help science to become more important in the longer term?

Psenner: In principle, yes, but ... We have seen that science is one of the few areas of society that functions even in the crisis, and in some respects even better than before. Research produces solutions with unprecedented speed - although some may forget that the development of novel vaccines is based on decades of publicly funded basic research. What made it difficult to communicate was the staccato of information – it was so overwhelming, for so many. Overall, I would assume that this experience convinced some sceptics of the value of science, although we are unlikely to convert - to use an appropriate term - the determined opponents, know-it-alls, and adherents of conspiracy theories.

Unfortunately, we are managing the climate crisis as poorly as the corona crisis: too slowly, too inconsistently.

Roland Psenner

On the other hand, research results, especially when produced so fast, are often only provisional and quickly contradicted. Do you see the danger that this feeds uncertainty and could prepare the ground for conspiracy theories?

Psenner: What is considered the scientific standard today may already be outdated tomorrow. Scientists are often of the opposite opinion, especially when it comes to new findings, and they prefer to do so in the public eye of the media. In a situation where life and death are at stake, this leaves the sphere of cultivated academic dispute - not to mention the problems faced by policymakers who have to derive tough regulations from contradictory positions. As far as conspiracy theories are concerned, I have a somewhat different opinion today than I did when I was still in the line of fire of the first disputes. I think that certain so-called contrarians disregarded well-founded measures not only out of a sense of insecurity or a need for eternal truths, but because they were existentially threatened, and - as Tomas Pueyo also recently points out - many measures turned out to be of little use or even ineffective. The fact that each country, each province imposed different measures, obviously aroused uncertainty, anger and resistance. I would even go a step further and admit that when I compare the figures for Europe or the U.S. with those of some Asian countries, I have doubts about the functioning of our democracies as far as the protection of human lives is concerned.

Eurac Research: The Pandemic Year in Numbers

You are talking about balancing the right to health with the rights to individual freedom, social justice and economic integrity. A dilemna, but surely also the strength of democracy?

Psenner: This generally formulated statement is debatable, since, for example, New Zealand (or Uruguay - unfortunately only in the initial phase) had their population, social system and economy well protected, while Hungary, for example, lost three times as many people to the pandemic in relation to its neighbor Austria. I think that we can only decide which combination of measures worked best after a time lag and on the basis of meaningful analyses. The fact that even in "real" democracies the differences between rich and poor have increased massively, cannot be denied, and this was the point of my criticism in response to your previous question.

Some may forget that the development of novel vaccines is based on decades of publicly funded basic research.

Roland Psenner

What does this mean for researchers? How do they walk the tightrope of wanting to "help" and publishing results that they wouldn't have published so quickly under normal circumstances?

Psenner: That's a well-known phenomenon in research: publish quickly, as long as you're the first or first to come up with a new finding. You have to speed up the peer review process, but you can't eliminate it. Preprints, open review procedures, storage of original data in accessible archives, etc. can not only speed up publication but also improve its quality. The dilemma of "publish or patent" must also be addressed here, because we need a "supply chain" of small, medium and large companies that produce products necessary for humanity from scientific knowledge. Since we in South Tyrol, have only been on the road for less than a generation, both in the field of basic research (Eurac Research, unibz) and in implementation (NOI Techpark, companies), I see the experience from the pandemic as a wake-up call to invest more here.

What conclusions do you draw from this as president of a research institution?

Psenner: Fast, fact-based response, clear communication of measures, unconventional ways ... all with an eye on the weakest and most vulnerable employees. These were the prerequisites for surviving the pandemic at Eurac Research reasonably unscathed.

Tomas Pueyo - for further reading:


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