Senior Fellow, ISSP, uOttawa
Hindsight is 20/20- or so they say today. But what happened to foresight?
It’s November 7, 2001. The place is Ottawa. The meeting is with health ministers and officials from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the UK, the US and the EU. The topic is health security and bioterrorism - a few months following the events of 9/11. The ministers design a plan for improving health security for the future.
Among the actions they propose are new partnerships to address critical issues of public health and security, including working more closely with the WHO. The objectives include: to explore joint cooperation in procuring vaccines and antibiotics; to engage in constructive dialogue regarding the rapid testing, research in variations of vaccines; to support the WHO ‘s disease surveillance network along with WHO’s efforts to develop a coordinated strategy for disease outbreak and containment; to improve linkages among level four laboratories; and to agree on a process for international collaboration on risk assessment and management and a common language for risk communication.
Fast forward five years to May 6, 2006. The place is London, at the Royal Society.
The occasion is a conference on the release of a foresight report titled ‘Infectious Diseases: Preparing for the Future’. The opening address is given by Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government who had provided the report’s highlights at a meeting of G8 science advisers and ministers in late 2005.
The conference has key sessions on future risks of infectious diseases, future science and systems for detection, identification and monitoring, and societal contexts for managing diseases in the future. Looking 10-25 years ahead, the foresight study examines potential threats and offers visions of future detection, identification and monitoring systems. Framed within a climate change perspective, the report explores human and zoonotic diseases in China and elsewhere, and notes that the risk of zoonotic infection shows no sign of diminishing and could increase in the future. An action plan is prepared underscoring early detection and the need for high-throughput screening of people at airports, as well as other forms of surveillance and quarantine.
Two different times, two different global contexts--- one major issue: how to anticipate, mobilize and respond to health outbreaks with science, technology and research taking the lead.
It’s now September 2020. The place is Canada. The crisis is a major health pandemic with ramifications for society, the economy, environment, and global statecraft. Elected officials of all stripes are trying to follow the science and evidence-- in its many forms.
Multiple expert panels and task forces are underway in the country at the federal, provincial and territorial levels tackling key issues in rapid response time. Public health officials and science advisors are doing their best to filter, assess and communicate the fast-moving pace of evidence and data. It is understandably piece meal, reactive, with risk assessment and communication a critical element of the narrative to maintain public trust and confidence in the polity and the science.
Advice and research is underway on a spectrum of issues ranging from the impact of COVID on children, to immunity response, to mental health, to re-imagining senior residences, to impacts on poor and disenfranchised populations, to training of the next generation of talent. Granting councils are funding pandemic research; schools, universities and colleges are adapting to the new learning; academies and institutes are posting expert blogs and commentary on a wide variety of pandemic subjects; innovative industry sectors are pivoting to respond... and the digital world has greatly transformed learning and knowledge.
But with hindsight, what have we learned from missed warnings decades ago? Some have argued that this is a moment not merely to deal with the virus, but to address the underlying issues that make this virus and this epidemic more severe, including the wide-ranging social impacts and research challenges beyond the immediate crisis.
What will be the plan after the pandemic is managed? Who will show the necessary leadership and how will citizens participate meaningfully? Will we see more effective national coordination on research, innovation and health strategies? Can we become technologically sovereign with vaccines, medical devices and equipment while maintaining our global science outreach? Will we go beyond the mere rhetoric of being prepared for the next global emergency?
The lessons of the past should tell us that foresight and follow-up matter.
In short, it is not too early to start planning for a next normal within our knowledge and research ecosystem across the country. Above all, it is important to remember that science and technology communities and their advisory capacities can be mobilized in horizon-scanning for future opportunities as well as threats, without compromising the very nature of longer-term discovery science. But in the end, it is vision and leadership that matters in making decisions, and trust by citizens that must be maintained. Otherwise, the shadows of doubt will overcome the lights of knowledge.