Impact perspectives: six ways of understanding covid-19 vaccine development

How does science make its way from academic research into society? There is agreement that the connection between science and society is not a linear or simple process. This blog post presents six perspectives on the complexity, long timespans and many different actors involved in scientific impact processes.

Image of a microscope

In our work in OSIRIS, we have observed six recurring perspectives explaining how scientific impact works: Science as a reservoir, science as accumulation of knowledge, impact through co-production, impact through serendipity, science as an investment, and science as a savior.

Around the world, people celebrated the fast development of vaccines against covid-19. Media and science system stakeholders reported on the success story in different ways, highlighting various ideas of scientific knowledge production and impact. The stories around vaccine development are great examples of the ways stories about science, innovation, and impact are told in general.

Science as a reservoir of knowledge

Researchers initially explored and explained the virus by comparing it to a wealth of established knowledge. They pulled from existing general information about viruses, pandemics, and the human immune system, but also more specifically from a reservoir of knowledge about coronaviruses, a family of viruses that had been investigated in other contexts for many years.  

Furthermore, different projects worked on different vaccine technologies, using established mechanisms such as inactivated vaccines and viral vector vaccines, as well as trying out the new technology of mRNA vaccines. As a WHO page on different vaccine types puts it: “Having lots of different vaccines in development increases the chances that there will be one or more successful vaccines” showing that having a broad reservoir of knowledge to work from is helpful.

Science as accumulation of knowledge

Many discussions about the development speed of the covid-19 vaccines emphasized the accumulation of knowledge in scientific research. Governments sped up development by reducing bureaucratic barriers and supplying funding, but the success story of mRNA vaccines builds on decades of existing research. This included Chinese researchers sharing an early sequencing of the virus (in turn enabled by technological innovations), experts working on the previous coronavirus epidemics (SARS and MERS), and earlier work on the mRNA technology such as trials in cancer research.

One example of this perspective is this description of the mRNA vaccine history, highlighting the many scientists involved at different stages. Another is the reference to earlier work in HIV and Ebola vaccines that led to the speedy development of covid-19 vaccines.

Impact through co-production

Across disciplines and organizations, many actors are involved in vaccine development. Ranging from the scientists who originally identified the virus genome, to publicly funded research enterprises and established large pharmaceutical companies, the successful development and subsequent scaling up of production and roll-out of the vaccines has involved the cooperation of many different actors to solve a particular problem. Many stories highlight the successful public-private partnerships behind covid-19 vaccination projects.

Impact through serendipity

Serendipitous discoveries make for compelling storytelling. So compelling that one article about the contributions of Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman starts out as a story of serendipitous discoveries, only to then remark that “Chance had nothing to do with it. Except, perhaps, for how they met”, highlighting the many decisions in scientific careers, as well as Karikó’s perseverance despite rejections and setbacks.

In a different case, when a mistake in dosage of the Astra Zeneca vaccine led to better trial results, media was quick to focus on this story as one example among many others of serendipitous scientific discoveries.

Science as an investment

As the pandemic unfolded, funding poured into vaccine development. Governments invested substantial amounts of money into developing vaccines as well as securing future doses for their citizens. This bet on which vaccine development project to support has paid out in many cases. In the case of BioNTech and Germany, the return on investment is immediate and measurable, the company being said to lift the entire German GDP by 0.5% in 2021. More broadly, effects of preventing deaths and illness as well as allowing countries to reopen their economies with fewer restrictions, financial benefits of the vaccine rollout are enormous, yet much more difficult to measure and attribute clearly.

Where the financial investment is seen worthwhile, it can be a motor for extremely fast and successful innovation processes. However, when financial risks are high and potential markets located in developing countries, funders might be reluctant, as also seen in HIV and Ebola vaccine development.

Science as a savior

The image of science coming in to save people and creating innovative solutions to problems was extremely prevalent during the pandemic. From popular responses to scientists’ claims that science had ‘delivered’ in creating tools and knowledge for politicians to use in fighting the pandemic, there was a strong belief that covid-19 was a problem that science and innovation would, and eventually did, successfully address the pandemic by developing vaccines against the disease.

What can we learn from impact perspectives?

Whenever we talk about science and how it relates to society, we implicitly think about one or more of these six perspectives we have presented here.  

Sometimes, different perspectives complement each other. For example, in fighting the pandemic, national disease control authorities worked with partners inside and outside academia (co-production), often building on long established relationships (accumulation). Production of vaccines had to be funded (investment) but also had to build on existing expertise (reservoir) in manufacturing and rolling out vaccinations. Existing expertise (reservoir), in turn, was established through decades-long research activities (accumulation).

Some combinations of perspectives have vastly different implications for the science system. For example, considering the investment perspective along with the savior perspective, it seems that science can solve any problem as soon as funding is made available to do so. But considering a combination of the serendipity and accumulation perspective, the emphasis would instead lie on more long-term funding structures as well as evaluation systems that ensure serendipitous discoveries and ‘outside the box’ thinking have the freedom to unfold.

Some perspectives also create tensions to others. For example, the investment perspective invites ideas of competition and project funding that might stand in contrast to ideas of co-production and accumulation.

Some perspectives might still be lacking entirely from discussions around the impact of science. Consider for example what transition studies call ‘windows of opportunity’, very visible in the case of mRNA vaccines – neither funding nor ethical permissions for clinical trials of a new vaccine technology would have been possible at that scale without the pandemic. Or consider how research on the vaccines’ effects on women’s menstrual cycles started only late into the roll-out – we are only slowly learning about how different bodies might react differently to the vaccine. Vaccines are also a good example of how the benefits from scientific efforts and results may be reaped only by some of the population in a country or in the world. Finally, the vaccine roll-out in some countries led to polarized discussions on whether and how vaccine status should be visible, controllable, or even mandatory – showing that societal effects of large-scale vaccination efforts, unlike physical effects of the vaccine on individual bodies, are much more unknown and unpredictable.  

Being aware of our own perspective of how science and society relate to each other helps us to see dominating arguments and potential blind spots of how we understand the science system, including funding, evaluation, training, and much more. In our work in OSIRIS, we cover many different cases and examples and have seen many of the above-mentioned perspectives at play.

More blog posts to follow

This is the first of a series of blog posts where we will go more into depth on each of the perspectives mentioned here. What do these perspectives mean for how we conceptualize, study and evaluate the impact of science? What are the underlying values and challenges associated with each of them, and what are their science policy implications? What does this heterogeneity of perspectives mean for those who use science to develop innovations, make policy decisions, or transform scientific evidence in other ways? You will find all articles on impact perspectives here on our blog when they get published about once a month.

Tags: Coronavirus, Research impact By Magnus Gulbrandsen, Frauke Rohden
Published June 9, 2022 3:39 PM - Last modified June 9, 2022 4:02 PM
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The OSIRIS blog

On the OSIRIS blog the members of the project team write about impact of research as our research on this topic progresses.

We aim for a collection of posts that represent preliminary and conceptual findings and ideas, discussions from meetings and seminars, shorter analyses of empirical data and brief summaries of the vast literature on impact. Some of the posts will be shared with the Impact Blog at the London School of Economics, the most comprehensive web page devoted to this topic and a great source of interesting ideas about many topics within science policy and science in practice.

The blog is also open for contributions from people outside of the OSIRIS team. Send us an email if you have a text that would fit into the blog.