NATURE PODCAST

Coronapod: Fighting the misinformation pandemic

With questionable coronavirus content flooding airwaves and online channels, what’s being done to limit its impact?

Benjamin Thompson, Noah Baker, and Amy Maxmen discuss the latest COVID-19 news.

In this episode:

00:57 The epidemiology of misinformation

As the pandemic spreads, so does a tidal wave of misinformation and conspiracy theories. We discuss how researchers' are tracking the spread of questionable content, and ways to limit its impact.

News: Anti-vaccine movement could undermine efforts to end coronavirus pandemic, researchers warn

Nature Video: Infodemic: Coronavirus and the fake news pandemic

17:55 One good thing

Our hosts pick out things that have made them smile in the last week, including a virtual tour of the world, dark humour, and experimental cocktails.

Video: The Isolation Choir sing What a Wonderful World

Spotify: Beastie Boys Book Complete Songs

22:30 Funding fears for researchers

Scientists around the world are concerned about the impacts that the pandemic will have on their funding and research projects. We hear from two who face uncertainty, and get an update on the plans put in place by funding organisations to support their researchers.

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

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An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Transcript

Benjamin Thompson, Noah Baker, and Amy Maxmen discuss the latest COVID-19 news.

Benjamin Thompson

Welcome to Coronapod.

Noah Baker

In this show, we’re going to bring you Nature’s take on the latest COVID-19 developments.

Benjamin Thompson

And we’ll be speaking to experts around the world about research during the pandemic.

Amy Maxmen

I really don’t know how this plays out. We also don’t know a ton about this virus, so there’s so many open questions. I just have a really hard time making predictions because I don’t know how the outbreak is going to change.

Benjamin Thompson

Welcome to episode nine of Coronapod. I’m Benjamin Thompson, once more in the South London basement, and I’m joined, as always, by Noah Baker and Amy Maxmen. Noah, how are you doing today?

Noah Baker

Yeah, not bad at all. How about you, Amy?

Amy Maxmen

Pretty good, doing pretty good.

Noah Baker

I had a bit of time off this week, which has been a welcome bit of rest until Coronapod comes around and duty calls, and so now I’m here to chat to you both, but it’s always a pleasure.

Amy Maxmen

Oh good.

Benjamin Thompson

Well, I’m going to start today’s podcast with a quote, if I may. It’s from Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, and the quote is: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic. We’re also fighting an infodemic.” And that’s very much the thrust of what we’re going to talk about today, right?

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, yeah, I like that term ‘infodemic’ because I have to say, kind of the metaphors of an epidemic work really well when describing misinformation. We’ve heard about posts and memes going viral. They often kind of start sort of small, but once they get bigger and bigger and amplify, that’s when it’s quite hard to control, just like an epidemic – an outbreak to an epidemic to a pandemic.

Noah Baker

I think when I first starting thinking about misinformation, I’m seeing misinformation coming up on my social media feeds, I’m hearing people talk about it, but when we started really reporting it and looking into what research has to say about how misinformation spreads and what difference that might have to the success or failure of public health responses, I was quite blown away by just how complicated this can get.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, that’s definitely true, and I was thinking one thing I’ve thought a lot about is during Ebola outbreaks, there also has been a lot of misinformation. So, in Sierra Leone, there were lots of plots about how the government might be using Ebola as kind of an excuse to marginalise people or to cull populations, and then there were also rumours that within Ebola treatments centres, aid workers were using this as like an excuse to experiment on Africans, but I would say the huge difference now is we have so much more social media and also TV media. The places where I’ve reported have been quite poor so most people don’t have smartphones and they don’t have the kind of coverage we have in the US, which is quite divisive. So, that’s a big difference, so I think that’s why misinformation is a whole new ball game right now.

Noah Baker

So, in terms of your reporting, where should we start because there’s so much to talk about here? I mean I’m kind of interested in what kinds of misinformation seem to be most insidious and spreading the most.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I would say a way to think about this is this is a new emerging epidemic. There’s a lot of unknowns so people go online to find information, but we’ve got kind of these, we can call it conformation bias or sort of underlying presumptions that all of us have in the back of our heads. For example, I think all of us here in Coronapod, we believe that researchers are looking for evidence and therefore that’s who we’re going to put our faith in. But there’s a lot of other people who kind of might have different notions about who they trust or distrust or things they already believe to be true. The researchers I spoke with talked a lot about how the conspiracies that are coming out now often at their very base have some kind of underlying notion that appeals to various people. Okay, so, specifically, if you’re a person who believes that technology companies are sort of ruthlessly out to mine our information and control us, you might be drawn to conspiracies that sort of crystallise those notions, and then there are other people who feel that governments want to take control or that globalism is a way to sort of threaten America. Then there’s anti-vaxxers who might believe that vaccines are a way that governments are trying to cull the population – that’s like one theme there – or that pharmaceutical companies are causing harm.

Benjamin Thompson

So, a whole host of groups that are open or, I don’t know, perhaps vulnerable to misinformation then. Do you have a worked example you can give us?

Amy Maxmen

So, for example, Joan Donavon. She’s a researcher at Harvard and she studies the way that misinformation flows through communities, and so she’s been tracking different rumours as sort of case studies for how this moves. So, there’s one rumour going around, which is wrong, that Bill Gates is actually planning to use a coronavirus vaccine to control people through injecting a microchip or quantum dot spy software. Basically, on 19 March, there was a post on a website called Biohackinfo, it gets a lot of shares, and two days later, somebody makes a YouTube video, it’s a channel on YouTube, and now it’s been viewed 2 million tines, and that also put forward this whole conspiracy theory. The next surge of this theory is when Roger Stone, who’s a former advisor to President Trump, goes on the radio in April and he talks about this conspiracy and then he says there’s no way he’s going to take a mandatory vaccine that Gates has put money into. Big problem because Gates is putting a lot of money into vaccines for coronavirus right now. That interview gets covered by the New York Post, and the New York Post article doesn’t really debunk it. Now, that article is liked, shared or commented on, just on Facebook, by more than a million people, and as Joan Donavon told me, she says, ‘That’s better performance than most mainstream media news stories get. That’s huge exposure.’ So, it kind of gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Even though it seems absurd to us and it’s wrong, for all of the groups I named before, people who are worried about vaccination, that fits their ideas. For people who are worried about globalisation Bill Gates is a big philanthropist in developing countries. And for people who are worried about technology, Bill Gates, of course, is the founder of Microsoft. He also is an easy enemy in that case. Different groups are sort of coming together that you wouldn’t have expected to come together.

Noah Baker

So, this week, one of my colleagues, Shamini Bundell, and two very talented filmmakers have made a short film about misinformation, and during the reporting for that, one of the people they spoke to, J. Scott Brennen from the University of Oxford, he’s been looking at different pieces of misinformation that have been spreading to work out which spread most and which seem to be the most successful. What they were finding is that most of the misinformation they’re seeing that really, really catches on and takes hold tends to have some kind of grain of truth in it that’s been exacerbated or extended. So, for example, it might be a real video but then there’s wording that’s incorrect that goes with it, or there may be some sort of scientific discovery that’s made that then is twisted and things are added to it and it’s taken out of context or put in the wrong perspective, but some kind of grain of truth seems to be really helpful in causing these pieces of misinformation to spread, and I think that kind of fits with my personal experience of what I’ve been seeing on social media and so on.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, I mean that definitely makes sense, and it doesn’t help that by very nature, this is a new disease so there are uncertainties, and so it can seem like people are flip-flopping or stories can seem suspicious because they’re not clear, and I think that’s not wrong. For example, with the face masks thing, people could see this is a sign that somebody’s manipulating something here, the fact that there was this complete reversal of the position of public health officials on whether or not face masks were helpful. That can kind of contribute to some of this too.

Benjamin Thompson

So, is that the nub of it then, do you think, Amy, the fact that there is these unknowns that lead to uncertainty and to these grey areas that can then be filled with questionable advice or what have you?

Amy Maxmen

It’s not always the case, but I think it’s the case sometimes. People are different. There’s different kinds of people. Some people are very sure of their point of view. If you’re very sure that the government is trying to cull populations, then some rumours, doesn’t matter how exactly a scientist frames uncertainty around a problem, you might find appeal in a rumour. But yeah, I think for sure, in other cases, just the vast amount of information that’s out there that varies can just confuse people and they might end up finding a wrong source to believe.

Noah Baker

I was really interested to find out the response to the video that we’ve made about misinformation, and so I’ve been trawling the comments underneath the video to see what people’s reaction is and what people’s thoughts are, and there’s a lot of really interesting discussion that’s going on there, as well as a few quite angry statements on there, and I thought I’d read one out as kind of a discussion point that we could work from. So, it’s a comment from someone that’s called themselves Muonium, and they say: ‘Misinformation and fake news such as the statement, ‘There’s no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus’ which the WHO pedalled the world for weeks at the behest of its master, the Chinese government.’ Now, there’s obviously a little bit of editorialising at the end of that quote, but it is true that that exact quote was said by the WHO at one point in this pandemic and that was just because at that point in time, there was no clear evidence that this thing was transmitted from human to human, but that was also a very long time ago and research has moved on since then and yet that is now being used as evidence that the WHO is somehow lying to us, which I think is tricky.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, it’s incredibly tricky. Another thing that Joan Donavon is seeing is that there’s something she’s calling ‘hidden virality’ or ‘zombie content’. So, what will happen is somebody might post an article about how COVID doesn’t spread between people or something like that on Medium, for example, and Medium might take down the post because their content moderators might catch up with it, realise it’s not right and they might take it down, or somebody on Facebook with flag it and then Facebook might take it down. But she’s found that there’s a number of posts that people will then go these various internet archive sites like the Wayback Machine where you can see okay, this was an article that was posted a month ago, and they’ll use that link. And so, a lot of these moderators, okay, they’ve decided this one original link is the problem but now people will be sharing this Wayback Machine link. Now, again, you or I might think, let’s see, this is a post that was already a Google doc to start with and then now it’s held on the Wayback Machine. Maybe this isn’t one of the verifiable sources that I want to use. But in fact, there’s some people that actually see this as more authentic. Kind of the more shoddy a website looks, the more authentic it is, and the fact that it was taken down just goes to prove that there are a set of people out there who don’t want you to know the truth, so if you really feel like information is being suppressed, it’s a sign of authenticity to have these sort of shoddy websites that are preserved on archives.

Benjamin Thompson

They should have seen my WordPress blog. That really was speaking the truth.

Amy Maxmen

Actually, you should see my website right now. I would really appeal.

Noah Baker

Laughs. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Amy Maxmen

Laughs. Please don’t.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean, if I may jump in then, so it seems like there’s a lot of work going on to understand how this information ebbs and flows and how it can become linked, but it begs the question, what is to be done? What efforts are researchers putting in to try and flatten the curve maybe, to use that epidemiology phrase, to try and stem the tide of this very questionable information that people are taking on board.

Amy Maxmen

Well, somebody like Joan Donavon, she’ll surely say social media, for example, could be doing more, like they could step up moderation. We ran a story this week by Phillip Ball that was a study about anti-vaccine conspiracies. So, there are more anti-vaccine pages on Facebook that pro-vaccine pages, and then the anti-vaccine pages are more often linked to within in different Facebook groups, such as parent associations at schools. In fact, even if there was a ‘good benefits of a vaccine’ page by places that Facebook might place higher in a search, they were generally disconnected from within these networks. So, what it kind of means is that the pro-vaccine community, if you can call it that, they don’t really have fingers in lots of places, so they’re not reaching, say, parents who are just concerned about their children, don’t really know very much about what different vaccines mean, aren’t reading Nature, and in a way, that suggests that perhaps pro-vaccine people could be doing more to get out there and to network. Instead of just putting up their own good information, they could be maybe a little bit more proactive.

Noah Baker

We are sitting here talking at this moment in time about misinformation and the spread of information. Now, we’re coming from the perspective of people who try to focus on an evidence basis for everything that we do, and we follow a kind of scientific approach, I suppose, to our reporting, but does it really matter? I mean the misinformation is being spread and that might offend our sort of ideologies as people that value evidence, but is this going to make a difference? Are people actually going to get sicker? Is it going to cause a problem for people to share these Facebook posts?

Amy Maxmen

I mean, I think we’ve already seen it cause problems. There’s already been at least four people that have taken pills that contain chloroquine on the basis of these sort of overhyped claims about its efficacy, and died from it. So, that’s happened. We’ve had a story about how people demanding the president’s drug in hospitals have been prescribed chloroquine instead of being able to enrol on a clinical trial, which means we might not get evidence that we need on chloroquine or on other drugs if they’re just getting it as compassionate use. So, that’s definitely already causing problems. In the US, there’s one news story about a security guard at a store actually being shot and killed by the husband of the woman who refused to wear a mask and the security guard said she couldn’t go into the store without a mask, and it provoked such anger that he was killed for it. I think the point is we’ve already seen that if people don’t believe that this is a transmissible virus that can take somebody’s life, or that drugs need to have evidence to back them or that there’s real safety concerns, if they’re not going to believe that, they’re going to make the wrong choices and those choices can be deadly.

Noah Baker

For the video that we put out, we spoke to a virologist called Dr Paul Hunter who started looking into this link between misinformation and health and behaviour of people in a pandemic in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and he noticed that misinformation was leading, and he documented how misinformation was leading to people changing their behaviour and so therefore putting themselves more at risk. And if you think about it in the context of now, if there are conspiracy theories going around saying that the coronavirus is not dangerous, it doesn’t cause anything more than a mild flu, and people believe that then I mean how likely are they to socially distance and stay at home? I think, arguably, very much less likely, and we do know that changing that behaviour has significant impacts on public health.

Amy Maxmen

Yeah, and it worries me that maybe we’re not reaching people enough. Actually, my brother’s a veterinarian, and he has a rule where he’s trying to ask people to not come into his waiting room right now. But some people can’t do that in his area so they also are allowed to come in but he asks them to try and only come in one at a time and definitely wear a face mask. And he had an older woman who was in the waiting room waiting, and he said a group of people came in without face masks and they refused to wear them. They were saying this whole thing was a hoax, which endangers the older woman in his waiting room, not to mention himself. So, that’s real. That’s definitely a real problem.

Noah Baker

And a hard situation for him to be in there because it’s his surgery. Does he have a duty of care to people in that surgery? I mean what a difficult situation to be in as a veterinarian who really doesn’t have training in this, to be honest.

Amy Maxmen

No, not at all. He’s bossy. He’s my brother. We’re similar. So, he did get them to get out of his office, but hey, thank goodness they weren’t armed. This the thing I worry about in the US.

Benjamin Thompson

I mean one thing I’m interested in as well, and maybe this is for the both of you, is the role of fact checking. We’ve talked a bit about tech companies and maybe they could be posting little flags saying this is maybe questionable research. Do we run the risk, do you think, of always being behind the curve in that sense because once you get the conspiracy theory or the truth as you believe it in your head, it’s very difficult to knock it out?

Noah Baker

Paul Hunter, that we spoke to in this video, has teamed up with a statistician called Julii Brainard, and the two of them attempted to try to model how misinformation might spread between people and impact their behaviour and therefore impact potential infection rates. It’s a very, very broad model. It’s a very ambitious model that takes into account things like the likelihoods that someone will believe misinformation and the likelihood that they’ll pass it on to other people. Once they’d built this, they started playing around with the different factors, and one of the things that they got quite clearly out of their model was that you don’t necessarily need to stop the misinformation, you just need to change the balance of misinformation to good information. So, if you tip that balance enough, then you can change behaviour significantly because you can sort of drown out the misinformation. And so, their kind of recommendation is flood the internet with positive information and you can tip that balance in terms of people’s behaviour, which is something that the WHO has actually started doing as well in their communications strategy, is flood social media which as much good information as you can to try to combat that misinformation.

Amy Maxmen

I like that idea.

Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s bring it home again for this week then everyone, and let’s do our one good thing for this week – our regular setup where we talk about what’s really sort of cheered us up or kept us going. Amy, I think it’s your turn to go first and I saw on the internet that you reached out to the wisdom of the crowd to get your one good thing. What have you got for us?

Amy Maxmen

I did, but I only got about two replies and they weren’t like super inspirational to be honest, crowd.

Noah Baker

I have to say, are you maybe scraping the barrel a bit now if you’re having to rely on, what, 6,000 Twitter followers or however many you have to try to find a good thing?

Amy Maxmen

I know, I know. What am I scraping the barrel for? I do have to think about it. My other outbreaks, I got to be mixing with people and I really got to see a lot of amazing things and this time, I’m more alone so it’s all coming from within my brain, so that’s sort of what is hard about it. But I did come up with something. I’m reading this Rebecca Solnit book. I just sorted of started, but I like one little part in it, and what she said is that, “The word ‘emergency’ comes from ‘emerge’, which means to rise out of. “An emergency is a separation from the familiar. A sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.” And it got me kind of thinking about, okay, what’s emerging that’s new in my life, which is obviously a lot, and pathetically or not, the thing that’s emerging is that now, my pastime, what I do for fun, is walk. So, I just go on all of these walks now, and sometimes I just drive somewhere that I’ve never been to before and just walk around. So, yesterday, I went on a walk in this neighbourhood with these huge houses with very mossy gardens and not really doing anything except for maybe listening to a podcast, and I get to hang out with this chihuahua that came into my life during this outbreak. So, that also has emerged – my chihuahua Delores that a friend just dropped off for me to borrow for a while – and she and I just take really long walks together and I love it.

Noah Baker

I love that as well. That’s just really lovely. The emergence of a new chihuahua in one’s life – it feels like there should be a word for that.

Amy Maxmen

Laughs.

Benjamin Thompson

Alright, well, let’s keep going. Noah, what about you? What’s your one good thing this week?

Noah Baker

So, I don’t know if this is cheating because I’m going to kind of revamp a good thing that I had in the past. Many weeks ago now on Coronapod, I said that my one good thing was something called The Isolation Choir, which is people singing songs virtually, and episode two of The Isolation Choir is actually coming up, and I think by the time this podcast is published, the second song will also be published, and it’s become a bit closer to me this time because I’ve had a few days off this week and during this time off, I have been editing the video as a favour to my friend who is doing all the wonderful audio editing and has coordinated the whole thing. I feel very privileged to be a part of it, and this one is the song What a Wonderful World and it features a very special guest in the form of Mr Brian Eno.

Amy Maxmen

Wow.

Benjamin Thompson

Goodness, yeah!

Noah Baker

I know! I was very excited.

Amy Maxmen

Oh my gosh. Incredible.

Benjamin Thompson

That’s awesome.

Noah Baker

I know, and a wonderful quartet called the Sacconi Quartet who did a beautiful performance, but I got WhatsApped a video from Brian Eno, which doesn’t happen very often.

Amy Maxmen

Gosh, that’s so cool. I love him.

Benjamin Thompson

Well, I will, of course, put a link to that in the show notes, and I’m going to do one that’s maybe somewhere between the two. It’s book related and it’s music related. I think going back through the shows, I think it was episode one where I said I’ve got a big stack of books. Well, obviously, I haven’t got my way through that, but one that I read earlier this year was the Beastie Boys autobiography, which to me, is an amazing book, but they have this really long list of songs in it that they listen to, hundreds and hundreds of records, and someone has gone through all of these and made a Spotify playlist of all of these songs, and it’s amazing. And I’ve covered some genres that I have never, ever heard of. I’ve been listening to a lot of boogaloo and I’ve been listening to a lot of new wave music and a lot of punk and all these things, right. And you know what, I don’t jive with every single song on it, but what I would say is this playlist is 39 hours long, so If there’s something I’m not into, hit the skip, off we go again, right, and I’ve just been playing it all the time. The weekends now, I am consumed by music and I love it.

Amy Maxmen

I had no idea that boogaloo was a kind of music. I’m going to google that now.

Noah Baker

You become experts in all kinds of things in a pandemic.

Amy Maxmen

Laughs. Totally.

Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s leave it there then. Amy and Noah, thank you so much, once again, for joining me.

Noah Baker

Thanks, Ben.

Amy Maxmen

Thank you.

Benjamin Thompson

More from Noah and Amy next week. Up next on this edition of Coronapod, there have been worrying reports about the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic could have on research funding. Reporter Julie Gould has been looking into the situation.

Julie Gould

With all but the most necessary research currently on hold, there are thousands of researchers around the world worrying about how they will continue to be funded whilst they’re not able to work. Brian Ross, originally from the USA, is a biomedical scientist postdoc at the Weizmann Institute in Israel where he studies protein evolution. On 19 March this year, Brian received an email from his funder, the US-based Fulbright Program, explaining that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are suspending all funding for their scholars from the end of June 2020, and that all USA scholars should return home where they can.

Brian Ross

After that, we’re on our own.

Julie Gould

Most Full Bright fellows are either PhD researchers or professors on sabbatical. They spend one year on the fellowship and retain an affiliation with a US institution. So, when the announcements were made by Fulbright, it made sense for these researchers to go home if they could do so safely. But it didn’t for Brian. He has a two-year scholarship and he doesn’t have an affiliate institution to go back to in the USA.

Brian Ross

It really was intrusive because we’re only about half-way done with the fellowship and we don’t have anywhere in the US to go back to. We’re in the middle of our research, our projects. It was a little disconcerting.

Julie Gould

Since the fellowships were suspended, Brian and the five other Fulbright postdocs in Israel have worked with the Fulbright Commission there to find a way around this situation. The decision made by the USA State Department is that once the Fulbright Program reopens, the postdocs can resume their work, and this will happen once the USA allows people to travel again. In the meantime, the Fulbright postdocs are allowed to continue working with their host institutions and can find their own source of funding.

Brian Ross

I think I’m hopeful that things will return to normal, and through these negotiations with the Fulbright Program and the State Department, it seems like people have our interests at heart. When you’re making a global order for programs in hundreds of countries, it’s hard to make unified policies that apply to everyone.

Julie Gould

Other scientists are also facing uncertainty. Researchers across the world are contacting their funding bodies to find out how they can support them through this crisis. Dave Jones spends a lot of time talking to early career researchers about the challenges they are facing during this pandemic. He’s the dean of the National Institutes of Health Research Academy in the UK, which supports over 5,000 medical researchers through funding and training. These researchers range on the career ladder from PhD students all the way to professors, and Dave’s role is to make sure that the researchers in the academy are happy, supported and looked after, and during this pandemic, he’s had a lot more work to do than before.

Dave Jones

So, the worries that I hear about are personal worries, so people who are clinical worry about the risks that they face. The second worry you hear about is about salary and paying the mortgage or the rent, and I think that’s a very human thing to be worried about. The third one is around my career in the future and the impact of all of this, and one of the things that the funders have all talked about is that there is going to be a time period where people are going to be impacted. There are people at different ends of the spectrum. So, if you’re delivering a clinical trial and that clinical trial is stopped and it’s not anything to do with you or anything you could have changed, that obviously will change the nature of your research. On the other hand, you might have somebody who is in the laboratory and loses time and experiments but will be able to pick those up. The impact may be a little bit less. And you maybe have people – I’ve got a couple of PhD students – who it’s just encouraged them to actually finish their experiments and start writing up and they won’t be impacted at all. So, it varies hugely from person to person.

Julie Gould

Dave says that the academy researchers need not worry about financial support. They are continuing to pay their stipends. I put the concerns about PhD researcher stipends and project extensions to Rory Duncan, the director of talent and skill at the United Kingdom Research and Innovation, or UKRI, that works with the seven research funding councils in the UK to direct research and innovation funding. He acknowledged these concerns and stated that despite us living in difficult times, PhD students supported by UKRI would continue to be paid and would be offered a six-month costed extension should they need it.

Rory Duncan

As soon as we realised that the pandemic was going to strike as it did and it became really clear that people’s lives were going to be upended and their research was going to be disrupted, we took steps to make sure that stipends wouldn’t be suspended. So, we made it really clear, in early March, to all of our training partners, research organisations and universities, for example, that students should keep getting paid. We’ve kept working along these lines and we’re clear that if a student needs an extension to finish their PhD or their doctoral training, that extension should be awarded. Now, clearly, we’re putting a lot of additional funding into addressing the COVID-19 pandemic right now, but there’s no intention whatsoever to cut finding anywhere else.

Julie Gould

UKRI haven’t yet made any announcements about how they intend to support their other researchers, like postdocs, but the Wellcome Trust in the UK has offered costed extensions to the grants for all their researchers, depending on the time frames. But what about researchers elsewhere? Many of the biggest funders, including the European Molecular Biology Organization, or the EMBO, and the Foundation for Science and Technology in Portugal, for example, have offered paid extensions to their funded researchers, and these commitments seem to be filtering through. I’ve spoken to a dozen researchers at various levels from around the world, and they seem to be adequately supported. But for those that aren’t, the current crisis is making things very challenging. Microbiologist Alejandro Manzano is a postdoc based at the University of Vienna in Austria, and like Brian Ross in Israel, he’s in between a rock and a hard place. His research is funded by the European Commission through the Marie Curie Actions Program. Now, like some other funders, they have offered their researchers a chance to suspend their projects until they can return to the lab, but unlike other funders, these are non-funded extensions. Now, Alejandro can’t suspend his research because his visa in Austria depends on him working, but he can’t get into the lab to do any work. Right now, although he’s being paid, the clock is ticking on his project because he’s chosen not to suspend it.

Alejandro Manzano

And you would expect that your funders should take some of the responsibility to try to ease all of these problems that you might face. It’s going to be sad seeing researchers that their career might end soon, researchers that will have to leave, research that is going to have to be interrupted and never again taken for a long time just because of this thing and the lack of support.

Julie Gould

Like Brian, Alejandro is working hard to find support. He’s created a petition and has joined forces with other fellows and the Marie Curie Alumni Association in the hope that they can change their situation. And his advice to others is to do the same. Funding and financial support is at the forefront of researchers’ minds at the moment, and it does seem that the majority of researchers around the world are being financially supported during the coming months. But what is the bigger picture here? Will the pandemic and the difficult times break the research system? I asked Rory Duncan from UKRI what he thinks that the future of scientific research and funding will look like. He is convinced that although the immediate future for a career in science might be difficult to predict right now, researchers and experts are what the world needs.

Rory Duncan

If we look at previous periods after a crisis, more people tend to go into higher education and research, and so we’re just at the very beginnings, now, of working out what types of strategies we’re going to need to support people to continue to do research and innovation. I think it is absolutely clear to me that research and innovation is extremely important and there is no question in my mind that we need researchers now more than ever.

Benjamin Thompson

Rory Duncan from UKRI there. So, that’s it for episode nine. I’ll put up a link to everything we’ve talked about in today’s show notes, and head over to nature.com/news for all the latest updates on the pandemic. I’m actually going to be away for a few weeks. I’m going to be leaving the South London basement for a bit and going to sit in a room with a bit more natural light, but don’t worry, Noah and Amy will be here in seven days with episode ten of Coronapod. I hope you can join them then. Don’t forget, we’ll also have a corona-free edition of the regular Nature Podcast on Wednesday. I’ve been Benjamin Thompson. Stay safe.