CanCOVID model could transform how research responds to future crises

Lindsay Borthwick
October 28, 2020

COVID-19 has brought about new models of research coordination and knowledge mobilization that could endure long after the pandemic subsides.

One of those models, CanCOVID—a virtual network where researchers, clinicians and healthcare professionals can communicate with each other in real time, and with industry and policymakers—is entering a new phase. This week, it will launch a new website with powerful new features and functionalities to support the COVID research and response community. The new, expanded CanCOVID was made possible by $1.25 million in funding from the federal government and synergistic partnerships with two grassroots COVID-19 response initiatives, Covid19resources and Rapid Evidence Access Link (REAL)

CanCOVID is also one of the most visible contributions of Canada’s growing Departmental Science Advisor (DSA) Network. Led by Dr. Mona Nemer (PhD), Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, the network has seven advisors embedded in federal science-based departments and agencies. 

CanCOVID was launched in just eight days in March. In the following month, it attracted more than 2,300 experts and is still growing. Members use the Slack channel-based messaging platform to exchange the latest scientific information, tools and resources about dozens of COVID-related research topics. On the new site, AI-enabled software tools will match domain experts to research questions and quickly mobilize knowledge about the pandemic for use by policymakers as well as the public. 

“I think the model is potentially transformative,” CanCOVID’s co-lead Dr. Cara Tannenbaum, departmental science advisor at Health Canada, said at last week’s virtual Research Money conference. “It’s an experiment… and we’re interested in testing this model going forward.”

Tannenbaum, along with Nemer and departmental science advisors Dr. Shawn Marshall (PhD) at Environment and Climate Change Canada, Dr. Vik Pant (PhD) at Natural Resources Canada, and Dr. Paul Snelgrove (PhD) at Fisheries and Oceans Canada participated in a virtual panel discussion, Canada’s Science Advisory Network: Goals and Priorities, at last week's Research Money conference. The panel covered how the network has responded to the pandemic and what it has learned from that response, as well as the weaknesses or gaps in the science advisory system. 

Tannenbaum said CanCOVID was born out of the need to get the high-quality scientific data into the hands of those who need them as quickly as possible. Those could be industry stakeholders trying to meet demand for made-in-Canada personal protective equipment, or policymakers deciding where to allocate COVID-19 research funds. Policymakers can turn to CanCOVID to crowdsource information that could guide the pandemic response, such as how to ensure a safe return to work for Canadians in different sectors, or how to scale up new diagnostic tests for the SARS-CoV-2 infection. Crowdsourcing happened organically at first but will now be automated using digital tools that identify domain experts and push alerts to them when new questions are posed to the network. 

The pandemic has highlighted the need for more rapid science to policy communication, Tannenbaum said, adding: “I think that there's going to be higher expectation for the granting councils to be knowledge brokers, for example, making sure that science can be communicated to policymakers in a more timely fashion, especially made-in-Canada science.”

Another clear need, said Nemer, is the ability to coordinate science advice. “It's really important that coherent science advice be provided across the country, not only at the level of provincial and federal governments, but also municipal governments.” She added that only Quebec and the three territories currently have science advisors.

Marshall said models of national engagement such as CanCOVID will be crucial to making progress on the grand challenges Canada will face post-COVID-19, including climate change, water governance and biodiversity. “These things need to involve the national community, not just a few departments, but the provinces  and territories and indigenous communities, and the academic research community.”

Echoing that view, Snelgrove noted that Canada needs to build capacity to deal with complex problems. “I think the whole COVID response is illustrating how pulling all these pieces together really has a huge impact on the success of dealing with such problems, and offers a model for how to deal with the next crisis, because there will be more.”


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