Canadian-led UN roadmap identifies research priorities for a post-pandemic recovery

Debbie Lawes
November 18, 2020

A Canadian-led United Nations initiative has identified 25 research priorities that will help countries develop post-pandemic plans that support an equitable global socio-economic recovery for everyone, everywhere, while also accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The roadmap is designed to guide global research efforts, minimize gaps and duplication, and foster partnerships and global coordination. It will also require new or re-prioritized research funding, particularly in the traditionally underfunded social sciences and humanities.

“The pandemic has shocked social and economic systems and has been a grand revealer of the underlying structures, obstacles and weaknesses that have long prevented the realization of the vision for a better and brighter future that was articulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” states the UN Research Roadmap for the COVID-19 Recovery.

Released November 17, the roadmap was developed in just 10 weeks through a global consultative process that engaged more than 250 experts and 38 research funding agencies, as well as government policymakers and civil society leaders. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was tasked by the UN to lead the process. It received support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Global Affairs Canada, Grand Challenges Canada, Health Canada, International Development Research Centre, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“It’s a roadmap, not a prescription. It’s not telling different countries what they should do but it is meant to be a helpful starting point for all societies no matter how wealthy or poor they are and how they can leverage the power of science for a better recovery … the number one question is how do we achieve as many co-benefits as possible from our efforts to address and recover from the pandemic,” says the roadmap’s leader, Dr. Steven Hoffman, scientific director of the CIHR Institute of Population and Public Health and director of the Global Strategy Lab at York University.

Hoffman says he was asked by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed to lead the roadmap, in part, because Canada was the first country to launch a rapid response funding for COVID-19-related research. “Our research response was one of the best in the world and it was noticed by our colleagues around the world and by the United Nations.”

Central role for social sciences and humanities research

While countries are currently focused on rising case numbers and advancing vaccines, the roadmap says they must simultaneously consider transformative changes—grounded in collaborative and interdisciplinary science—that can build a recovery that pays particular attention to environmental sustainability, gender equity and at-risk populations, all key objectives of the SDGs.

The Canadian government has committed to taking a science-based and collaborative approach to any post-pandemic recovery plan. Speaking to delegates at the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) November 17, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains reaffirmed that Canada's economic recovery will proceed "in an inclusive manner" and "reflect our climate policies".

That approach will undoubtedly require an increased role for SSHRC.

“We talk about vaccines and we talk about therapies but we need to think about people,” SSHRC president Dr. Ted Hewitt said during a November 3 panel discussion of the roadmap at the CSPC which was held online this year,. “Combating the disease, the economic recovery, it’s about people, it’s about behaviour, it’s about economic policy, it’s about social policy, it’s about economies. The roadmap has been essential in reminding all of our agencies how we need to work together.”

Hoffman agrees: “What you essentially see in the roadmap is a business case for why the social sciences and humanities and related areas of science are so important for human progress. To the extent that we believe they’re important that of course means that we need to resource and support them accordingly.”

The 128-page roadmap identifies 25 research priorities, categorized under five pillars. Each of the 25 priorities also includes three sub-priorities—areas where research funders can expect immediate impacts (“quick wins”); outsized impacts (“best-buy); and more transformative, longer-term impacts (“game-changer”). For example, quick wins include:

  1. Health Systems and Services: How can health systems promote compliance with voluntary and mandatory public health measures?
  2. Social Protection and Basic Services: What are effective strategies for safeguarding the mental health of front-line workers providing basic services?
  3. Economic Response and Recovery: How can supports for informal workers address the unique needs of women, refugees, migrants, and young people engaged in informal work?
  4. Macroeconomic Policies and Multilateral Collaboration: What lessons from past economic crises can inform the design of national, regional and global recovery strategies?
  5. Social Cohesion and Community Resilience: How does misinformation spread and how can digital technologies be used to minimize it?

The roadmap also identifies five science strategies underpinned by investments in: data infrastructure; implementation science; rapid learning systems; knowledge mobilization; and the science of how we do science. The last strategy would be of particular interest to government funders as it would delve into issues such as funding practices, partnership structures and advisory systems.


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