Beeld: Vijselaar en Sixma

Global crisis: blessing and curse

Does science suffer under major events such as war, natural disasters or pandemics? Or does a crisis enable research to gain momentum? That depends on the project. However miserable it may be, the coronavirus has not just caused problems: it has also created opportunities.

Beeld: Vijselaar en Sixma
Text: Malou van Hintum, image: Vijselaar en Sixma

Where a silent killer like the climate crisis failed, a ubiquitous sniper in the form of the coronavirus succeeded: politicians have put society in lockdown, citizens stay inside as much as possible and companies are closed. What is the impact of such a global disaster on science? And what can other major events teach us about this?

War and science linked

Science and universities historian Ab Flipse from VU Amsterdam distinguishes two types of crises: natural disasters (including pandemics) and wars. Both have consequences for science, but wars the most: ‘War is always strongly linked with science’, he says. ‘During the First World War, chemists played an important role in developing toxic gasses. During the Second World War, nuclear physicists achieved daring exploits with the rapid development of a usable atomic bomb.’

Plans were rapidly realised

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, often lead to the rapid development and realisation of existing plans. Flipse: ‘In the Netherlands that often concerns water. For example, during the First World War, the decision was taken to reclaim part of the Zuiderzee, due to a decreased supply of goods to the Netherlands and an imminent food shortage. In that same period, a huge storm surge occurred that affected many coastal places. In response to this, a strong scientific committee was put together.’ This National Zuiderzee Committee – chaired by the famous physicist Hendrik Lorentz – modelled the consequences of constructing the Afsluitdijk. ‘Plans which politicians had endlessly debated could now be realised. In 1933, the Afsluitdijk was completed.’

Home-grown knowledge

‘After the Second World War, thanks to scientific breakthroughs such as the atomic bomb, a lot was also expected from scientific collaboration in peacetime’, says Flipse. Not only applied research was needed – TNO had existed since 1932 – but also pure, fundamental research. In 1950, ZWO was established, the Netherlands Organisation for Fundamental Scientific Research, the predecessor of the current NWO.

The Cold War curbed international scientific collaboration

Ab Flipse

‘There was a widely held feeling that a strong scientific sector would definitely contribute to the reconstruction efforts and welfare. The Netherlands wished to be independent of others and to possess all knowledge across the entire breadth of science’, says Flipse. The Cold War contributed to that because it curbed international scientific collaboration.

Russian satellite Sputnik

Political and military landslides strongly influence the direction that scientific research takes, according to Flipse. ‘One such example is the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the 1950s. In response to this, the United States invested heavily in space and computer research. History reveals that science often serves politics. After 9/11, a lot of money went to security and terrorism research. Another example is the investments the government is making in Islamic studies due to concerns about radicalisation in Muslim circles. This meant that a centre for Islamic theology could be established at VU Amsterdam, including an imam training course which the government hoped would have a moderating influence.’

Ultrasound scans on Coronavirus patient

In the current coronavirus crisis, everyone is looking towards medicine. The Dutch government recently made 192 million euros available for the development of a corona vaccine. A political decision that is directly related to the coronavirus crisis. But other medical research has also been accelerated due to COVID-19. One such example is the research of Chris de Korte, Professor of Medical Ultrasound Techniques at Radboud Institute for Health Sciences. De Korte has been working for several years on the automatic analysis of images made by portable ultrasound devices. Together with Professor of Acute Internal Medicine, Frank Bosch, he is investigating whether this can also be used to diagnose COVID-19. If that is the case, then this could eventually replace the CT scan. Such an ultrasound device is far cheaper and more patient-friendly than a CT scanner, does not require cleaning after every measurement and can easily be used more often to follow the development of the disease. However, does an ultrasound scan have the same value as a CT scan? De Korte: ‘Over a period of three weeks, we made ultrasound scans of the lungs of 85 coronavirus patients. When we compared the ultrasound and CT scan results, they were found to be highly comparable.’ Each ultrasound scan contains about 100 images, and we therefore made a total of about 80,000 images. De Korte is now using deep learning to automatically analyse these ultrasound scans. In the short term, he expects to realise a system that is capable of automatic detection. As the coronavirus pandemic is likely to persist for some time, new patients will be added to the study. ‘The more data we have, the better the system will work. We have plenty to do for the time being.’

Uncertainty about transmitters

Migratory birds easily cross borders, but due to the coronavirus, it is harder for researchers to do the same. Behavioural biologist Jan van Gils from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) has a Vici grant, and from 15 April onwards he was due to spend three weeks with his team in Mauritania attaching transmitters to fifty red knots. The main question in his research: what does global warming of the North Pole region mean for the red knot, the bird which acts as a canary in the coal mine for climate change? Red knots breed in the northernmost part of Siberia, where each year the snow is melting a day earlier. As a result of that shift, they are arriving so late that the chicks are born after the seasonal peak in food availability. The young red knots grow less and remain smaller, and their beaks also do not grow as much as they used to. Therefore, during their overwintering in Africa and in the Wadden Sea, they cannot easily access their favourite food: buried shellfish. Now the population has more than halved. Van Gils: ‘We want to find out why they don’t leave Africa earlier, and the transmitters could give an answer to that. We know, for example, that the bar-tailed godwit does arrive in Siberia on time because it remains less long in the Wadden Sea. However, it sets out on its journey with less fuel.’ Due to coronavirus crisis, the expedition to Mauritania was called off. ‘We were highly frustrated’, said Van Gils at the start of May. The next phase in the data collection would have started from 10 May onwards, when the red knots with transmitters would have arrived in the German Wadden Sea area. Of course, the plan had to be adapted, and Van Gils knew how: ‘Then we will go to Germany and attach the transmitters to the red knots there.’ He made his proposal completely corona proof. Initially, the NIOZ directors rejected the plan, but after a second effort, the team of Van Gils was allowed to go to the German Wadden area. Now the researchers hope they can follow the birds to Siberia.­­­

Bumblebees and hearing aids

Neuroscientist Martijn Agterberg, from the Donders Institute at Radboud University, has parked a mobile laboratory behind his house that contains a box of bumblebees from Wageningen University. He usually drives that lab – without bumblebees – to Germany. There he does comparative research measurements among German children who wear a different hearing implant than their Dutch counterparts. However, the coronavirus measures made this patient research impossible, and so he will now condition the bumblebees. Hearing is effectively watching with your ears. Healthy ears can localise the direction of a sound as a result of which you can orientate yourself. But if you are deaf in one ear, you cannot detect the direction. Bumblebees’ ears are located on their antenna. Agterberg wants to know whether bumblebees move the antenna their ears are located on. And if they do, then how? ‘If I can understand that, then I can develop direction-sensitive sensors that are so small they fit inside the processor of a hearing implant. That directional sensitivity should considerably improve the quality of hearing.’ He purchased a beekeeping suit, constructed a test setup in his lab and got down to work. ‘My dream is to achieve a better outcome with half of the costs and impact because then children will only need a single implant in one ear.’

Doing things in reverse order

She had planned everything very carefully: first experimental research in the lab and then model development and data testing. However, the coronavirus crisis spoilt her plans. Anne-Catherine Dieudonné, Assistant Professor of Engineering Geology at TU Delft, can scarcely enter her lab at the moment. Dieudonné is investigating the self-restoring capacity of clay: cracks and faults automatically seal again. ‘If we can gain a better understanding of these processes, we will be able to design and maintain our clay-based infrastructure more effectively and sustainably. That will lead to safer dykes and final radioactive waste storage.’ As she did not have any data, Dieudonné decided to first of all develop a theoretical model based on data from the literature. The model worked surprisingly well. ‘Good models have a physical basis that can be experimentally determined. Conversely, models can also help with the design of an experimental setup and provide insight into how experiments will proceed. My provisional theoretical model will not be perfect, but it will contribute to the design of experiments. And that will increase my chances of success. Furthermore, in a later stage, it will be easier and faster to improve the model, and that is cheaper than changing an experimental setup in retrospect.’

Onderzoek 4. Impact op onderzoek.