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COVID-19 makes the case: Lower research barriers

By Anthony Boccanfuso

On January 20, before COVID-19 even had a name, a research consortium publicly posted the virus’s genome with a message to researchers to download, share, use, and analyze the data. In 10 weeks, the first vaccine, developed by the University of Oxford and Moderna, began Phase 1 trial.

Last month, that vaccine went into Phase 3 trials, while one from a Pfizer/BioNTech partnership pursued Phase 2/3 trials. Another vaccine, this time developed by University of Oxford researchers with AstraZeneca, is in a Phase 2/3 trial.

Vijay Govindarajan of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business says, “If we look at history, typically when there has been an external shock, we start mass experimentation. This then leads to more permanent change.” The pandemic, by definition, is a worldwide emergency and has achieved the external shock required for rapid treatment and vaccine development. Why? Because there was a unified, rallying cry worldwide from top leadership in companies, universities, and governments that we need to do something to solve this problem—now.

Research resources across sectors were redirected to battle COVID-19 at full force. Billions of dollars dedicated to funding the research and pre-purchase still unproven vaccines lifted researchers over typical hurdles. Regulatory barriers were relaxed, and approval periods drastically reduced.

The dizzying pace of vaccine development—far surpassing the fastest previous timeline—was enabled by lowering a series of non-financial hurdles as well. With a unifying focus on solutions, organizations aren’t worrying about currently mundane details like intellectual property clauses, state jurisdiction for indemnification, or whether the university will accept a reduced overhead rate; rather, they possess a laser-like focus on the big picture.

Acknowledging that COVID-19 is a unique global call to action, I believe we can and should learn from it to streamline research collaboration processes moving forward. UIDP is familiar with this territory. We know that academic and corporate scientists can get together and quickly come to agreement about the research they want to pursue, but it can take months (or worse a year) to negotiate the contractual challenges so they can get down to work. Why does it take so long?

Nobel prize-winning economist James Buchanan taught us that leaders in government and other bureaucratic structures, while supporting efforts for public good, tend to make decisions that benefit themselves. Sometimes they advocate for causes or projects that please a particular constituency—not because it serves the greater good, but because it makes them feel powerful or important. Others down the chain of command, in turn, pursue the leader’s goals as a means to advance themselves, too. These individual choices often mean we lose efficiency and effectiveness in pursuit of big goals.

We can learn much from the past six months about leadership mindset, clear priorities, and collaboration that can unify vision and bring down barriers, accelerating future research endeavors. The question is whether we’re willing to apply these lessons to other challenges with great societal impact—from curing Alzheimer’s disease to next-generation computing. How can we bring a sense of urgency to problems, not as acute as COVID-19 but certainly with great societal impact? By removing barriers that don’t add value but do impede collaboration.

UIDP has been thinking in these terms since our inception. We invite our members and others to contribute to the discussion and help effect change in the way we collaborate and partner and, ultimately, bring about societal benefit.

August 20, 2020