2021: Beyond coronavirus – what’s in store for science in the year ahead?

There was one science story that dominated 2020 and coronavirus is likely to remain a dominant theme in 2021. But from vaccine rollout to lessons for future pandemics and – that other big challenge that we’re facing – climate change, how will the year in science play out? We asked a selection of our interviewees about lessons from 2020 and what needs to happen in their fields in the coming year.



To vaccinate people, supply chain disruptions must be fixed – Prof. Gyöngyi Kovács

‘Now that we have vaccines, it’s time to think about vaccination – and that’s a massive effort with regards to securing temperature control from manufacturing to vaccine use,’ said humanitarian logistician, Professor Gyöngyi Kovács of the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. ‘Every (coronavirus) vaccine has its own temperature range, and no country or region has an actual choice of what they want to deliver; it’s what they manage to get in time,’ she said. ‘This needs to be a global effort, and one that truly considers equity in health around the world.’

Properly functioning supply chains are crucial not just for coronavirus vaccinations, but also to keep the world moving and tackle multiple new and existing challenges, some exacerbated by the pandemic, such as conflict, food security and climate change. ‘The pandemic came on top of those but hasn’t eliminated any of them,’ she said.

READ: Lack of solidarity hampered Europe’s coronavirus response, research finds

The coronavirus vaccine campaigns must be done well to build public trust – Prof. Heidi Larson

Coronavirus vaccine campaigns are high on the global agenda, with countries gearing up to vaccinate their populations. ‘The one big change in my field – understanding the dynamics of vaccine confidence — will be the introduction and roll-out of new Covid vaccines,’ said anthropologist Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK.

‘It will be crucial to creating foundational trust for vaccines more broadly if we do it well, engaging publics every step of the way.’

READ: Q&A: Talking about the ‘race’ for a coronavirus vaccine could reduce public confidence

We must get used to concepts such as probability to understand vaccine and coronavirus responses – Dr Aleksandra Walczak

Dr Aleksandra Walczak, a physicist at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, France, who uses statistical physics to study the human immune system, will be watching people’s and Sars-Cov-2 responses to the different vaccines as well as further coronavirus findings. ‘It will also be interesting to see where the flu virus picks up, which seems to be less visible this year,’ she said.

In 2020, we’ve learnt how coronavirus grows and spreads and we’ve all come to understand infection curves and when hospitals will saturate. In 2021, we need to better understand atypical responses – to coronavirus and to the vaccines – and learn to think in terms of probabilities. ‘We don’t know really yet what is a typical response to coronavirus,’ Dr Walczak pointed out. For example, asymptomatic cases were initially thought to be outliers and we now know they are quite common.

‘We should not panic (as society) if there are some people who respond badly (to a vaccine),’ said Dr Walczak. We, as society, with the help of journalists will have to learn not to focus on uncommon responses, after we understand what those are, she says.

READ: Q&A: How physics could explain why people respond differently to coronavirus infection



The EU should urgently establish a health emergency authority – Peter Piot

‘The Covid-19 pandemic pointed to the limitations of an ad-hoc approach to health crises: pre-established networks, systems and infrastructure would have enabled a more rapid and coordinated response – crucial in the early phase of an outbreak,’ said Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, and a special advisor on coronavirus to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Stronger EU-level collaboration within an international context is essential, he says. ‘This is why we urgently need to establish an EU Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), which should support the development and manufacturing of tools against epidemic threats, present and future.’

READ: Q&A: ‘We are only at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic’ – Prof. Peter Piot

We need an ‘Apollo project’ to plan for future pandemics – Marion Koopmans

By the summer, we should see coronavirus vaccination campaigns in different stages, and with massive ramping up of testing and creative planning by businesses and citizens, there should be more freedom to move, says Professor Marion Koopmans, head of the viroscience department at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. ‘With that, I think we are going to see light at the end of the (pandemic) tunnel,’ she said.

At the same time, she hopes it’ll be a time of reflection, forward planning and rethinking the future. ‘Science was able to move fast because of investments in basic knowledge decades ago,’ she said, but warns that this won’t be the last pandemic. ‘The changes impacting on our planet will inevitably lead to new diseases,’ Prof. Koopmans said. ‘Let’s make our ability to predict, detect, and control future pandemics our Apollo project.’

READ: Q&A: We have to rethink disease detection to get ahead of the outbreak after coronavirus



We need Europe-wide studies into the pandemic’s impact on vulnerable communities – Prof. David Baldwin

‘We need (Europe-wide) endeavours to understand the differential adverse impact of the pandemic on individuals with previous mental health problems or from Black and minority ethnic communities,’ said Professor David Baldwin, head of the mental health group at the University of Southampton, UK.

This includes examining how personal factors – such as socio-economic disadvantage, poor nutrition and vitamin D deficiency – interact with sociocultural factors, including stigma, multi-generation housing and impaired access to mental health services, he says.

READ: Q&A: When and how does anxiety become a problem?

We’ll ‘unlock a new era’ in finding molecules to treat rare and neglected diseases – Dr Andrea Beccari

Dr Andrea Beccari from Dompé Pharmaceuticals in Italy manages the drug discovery platform Exscalate4CoV, which used AI to trawl through known drug molecules to find potential coronavirus treatments. He says safe molecules of existing drugs, nutraceutical and natural products present a bounty of opportunities to develop new chemical entities for treating neglected, rare and pandemic-level diseases.

‘New development in artificial intelligence on big data and large-scale simulations enabled by the European HPC (high-performance computing) infrastructure will unlock a new era for the valorisation of clinical grade molecules,’ he said. Such molecules are a world heritage, says Dr Beccari, that must be exploited to address timely and costly health societal challenges.

READ: Repurposing drugs and networks can help find outbreak treatments against the clock

Plans for post-pandemic economic recovery should be focused on the environment – Prof. Frank Geels

In 2021, the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic, such as dampened economic growth and rising unemployment, could threaten the sustainability and low-carbon transitions in many sectors and countries, says Professor Frank Geels, a sustainability expert at the University of Manchester, in the UK.

While the European Commission and countries such as Spain, France and Germany have green recovery plans that aim to ‘build back better’, many other governments around the world are directing support money towards ‘grey’ sectors, he says. These sectors include aviation, fossil fuel production and car manufacturing. In such countries, the work of NGOs, activists, private companies, and cities will be critical. ‘The efforts of non-state actors will therefore remain essential to advance sustainability transitions,’ he said.

READ: Can the world emerge from the pandemic a better place?

Governments must help people adapt to a more digital life – Xabier Goenaga

During the pandemic, many things – from school and shopping to museum visits and exercise classes –  went online-only and at least some of this is expected to stick. But many citizens need to be better equipped with the digital and socio-emotional skills to deal with telework, e-government, internet shopping and digital platforms, says Xabier Goenaga, head of the Knowledge, Innovation and Growth unit at the EU’s in-house research service, the Joint Research Centre. The tools to help exist, he says. ‘But we need decisive action from governments, companies and schools to implement ambitious programmes.’

People will also need the skills to become more flexible and resilient, he says. ‘These social and emotional skills will not only improve their well-being but also their opportunities in the job market.’

READ: Teleworking is here to stay – here’s what it means for the future of work


Humanities should join the ranks of climate change research – Dr Kristin Aunan

Dr Kristin Aunan, from the Centre for International Climate Research in Norway, expects researchers working in different environmental areas to work together to understand the interlinkages between global warming, air pollution, ocean health and human health. Increasingly, the close links between human, social and Earth systems are being acknowledged, she says, which she thinks means more transdisciplinary research collaboration.

‘Particularly, I think the time is ripe for the humanities to join research consortia on climate change in full,’ she said, as we need to further understand the behavioural dimension to make research relevant and have an impact. ‘Understanding what triggers human initiative and action is crucial.’

READ: Q&A: China and Europe likely to see different effect of coronavirus-related air pollution drop

An ‘explosion’ of satellite data will create a paradigm shift in how we understand forests – Dr Thomas Pugh

‘I expect 2021 to see an explosion in results from recent satellite missions providing unprecedented levels of spatial detail of forest structure across whole continents,’ said Dr Thomas Pugh, an environmental scientist at Lund University, Sweden, referring to the missions GEDI and Planet.

‘Combined with advances in computer modelling and new assemblages of ground-based observations, I think we’re on the cusp of a paradigm shift in quantifying how forests’ form and behaviour varies across the world.’

This is critical for an accurate understanding of the world’s forest carbon sink – where it is, how strong it is, and how resilient to climate change it is likely to be. ‘Right now, the error bars on that sink are enormous.’

READ: Understanding why trees are dying may be key to locking up carbon

Work should begin on designing hydrogen passenger aircraft – Dr Josef Kallo

Dr Josef Kallo from the German aeronautical research agency (DLR) says in 2021, work will start on concepts for green, passenger hydrogen aircraft. He says this based on the work of the projects HEAVEN and MAHEPA, which he’s part of, and the flight testing – completed in October 2020 – of HY4, the first passenger hydrogen aircraft of the company H2FLY. ‘We (now) know that is possible to fly emission free with up to 40 passengers at 2,000 km range,’ he said.

READ: Quiet and green: Why hydrogen planes could be the future of aviation

Crunching the data from the MOSAiC polar expedition will lead to Arctic science breakthroughs – Dr Polona Itkin

Dr Polona Itkin, a sea ice researcher at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, says she expects 2021 to be a year of Arctic science breakthroughs – or at least laying the foundations for them. With less travel and field work due to the pandemic, there will be more time to analyse the data from MOSAiC, the year-long largest polar expedition of its kind which Dr Itkin joined and that finished in October.

Some of the breakthroughs she expects to see include observing and modelling sea ice formation at the smallest scales – from several hundred metres to a metre. ‘Currently we are only able to work with such data on larger scales that are very hard to connect with direct field measurements,’ she said. She also expects a better understanding of what snow does to sea ice growth and thickness and how pressure ridges consolidate and grow.

This would all mean climate models could be improved. ‘For example, it would help us to finally understand why we are losing the Arctic sea ice so fast.’

READ: A day on the Polarstern: studying climate change up close

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