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Research will bring us back together

Coronavirus and a generation of lost potential

17th April 2020

On a normal sunny Easter weekend, Edinburgh’s half million residents would normally be joined by a million extra visitors, who come to take in the architecture, culture and heritage of the historic city.

But thanks to coronavirus, things were far from normal in Edinburgh over Easter weekend. The city’s Royal Mile, connecting Holyrood Palace to the famous Edinburgh Castle perched high over the city, was deserted. The city’s cluster of independent bars, cafes and shops were all closed.

Just on the outskirts of the city centre by the sandy beach of the village of Portobello, Dr Carsten Hansen is at home with his wife and two young kids trying to adjust to life as a cancer researcher who has been locked out of his lab. Like all our lives, cancer research at the Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh where Carsten works, is on hold.

Lost potential

Like the rest of us, Carsten has real concern about how the pandemic could impact his work and the work of his colleagues in the future.

“I am worried that the economic downturn will have a direct impact on the younger generation of scientists. It could lead to a generation of lost potential,” said Carsten.

These young scientists are the pioneers of tomorrow. The ones who will come up with exciting, bold and innovative ideas in the future. They are also the people that get stuff done. They grow millions of cancer cells to test out new drugs. They stare down microscopes trying to spot tiny molecules that could be a weak spot for cancer. And they smash cancer cells apart to study their internal parts, like a watchmaker taking a clock apart to find out what makes it tick.

“I am also worried about the loss of lives and livelihoods,” said Carsten. “It is stressful to see the world going through this. The consequences of the pandemic on people living in countries with less developed healthcare systems is extremely worrying.”

Staying prepared

Although the labs are closed, there are still things that Carsten has been able to get on with. Small things that help him stay optimistic in a time of panic buying and social distancing.

“We worked hard to prepare as much as possible for working from home. We are getting ready so we can hit the ground running when we get back in the lab,” Carsten explained.

However, the long-term impact for cancer research doesn’t look as good. There is a real risk that funders of research will take a financial hit, ultimately reducing the total amount available to support vital life-saving research.

Maintain focus

There is also a sense of concern that this pandemic could shift the focus of research away from early-stage discovery science even more than it is already. As a funder of this type of research we know how important it is to support this work because it allows researchers to explore new concepts and lay the foundation for new tests or treatments for cancer.

“This is absolutely a worry for me. While translational research is clearly important, it really is the middle stage in a long research journey towards medical breakthroughs. These breakthroughs stem from this fundamental early-stage research so it’s critical that we don’t lose that focus.”

Experts back in fashion

There are positives emerging from this crisis, however. Carsten is grateful that the coronavirus pandemic seems to be “favouring a fact-based society”, or as we like to put it, that experts are back in fashion.

“Science and research are truly central in people’s minds right now,” said Carsten. “This is something that has been lacking in the recent past and if something good comes out of all this it will be that people are more aware than ever before of the power research has to change the world for the better”.

Coronavirus has left labs and their staff in limbo. As Carsten points out, young scientists stand to take a significant hit. We must keep supporting these researchers because in the end it will be research that brings us back together.