The UK has a small but highly effective community of academic experts in pandemic modelling. These skilled researchers are currently at full stretch, not only doing their own research on the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, but also providing evidence to inform Government policy, through channels such as SPI-M, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Group, which reports to SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
Many in the wider scientific community have valuable skills in computer modelling but no direct expertise in pandemic models. For example, some existing epidemic models, called IBMs (individual based models) are closely related to Agent Based Models used in research fields ranging from urban traffic planning, financial market modelling, dataflow optimization across communications networks, and individualized marketing on social media. In some of these fields there is valuable expertise in developing very large scale models and integrating them with data-science toolsets.
This is a nationwide call for rapid assistance in modelling the pandemic (RAMP), addressed to specialists in any or all of the above areas, and indeed to the scientific modelling community more widely. Possible assistance could include advice on importing modelling elements from other research domains; undertaking the software engineering needed to port vastly enlarged datasets into existing pandemic models; data analytics to create predictive empirical models from real-world data; offering new perspectives on existing modelling strategies; and adding to human and computing resources more generally. Another role could be to review and filter the numerous COVID-relating modelling efforts from scientists in other fields that are already starting to appear online, feeding through to SPI-M and/or other bodies, contributions that might have substantial impact on planning.
This call for assistance is addressed to the wider modelling community (including data analytics) in academia and industry. Our initial focus is on the UK community but this is an international emergency and we welcome contributions from non-UK based scientists, while realizing that they might wish to prioritize any similar initiative in their own countries.
Qualified researchers, willing to devote time to RAMP, are asked to take the following steps:
We are hoping to get the first outputs from RAMP within an initial 4-month period (April-July), and are looking for people willing to volunteer significant fractions of their research time across that timescale.
This initial timescale is chosen with the objective of enhancing modelling capacity in time to create a clearer understanding of different exit strategies from the escalating lockdown that has been initiated. We need to assist our pandemic modellers by building capacity to explore and optimize possible exit strategies, both via mechanistic models and data-driven methods; and then refine the predictions in response to real-world data both from the UK and from other countries who may be ahead of us on the exit path. By bringing in new cross-disciplinary thinking, and by adding to human and compute resources, we hope RAMP will allow more robust and comprehensive predictions than would otherwise be possible.
An initiative of this kind must be properly coordinated, and participants should be prepared for their efforts to be managed, perhaps more closely than they are used to. The scheme is entirely voluntary but once you agree to a task (individually or on behalf of your team) you should feel committed to report and deliver on time. Initial support for RAMP includes the secondment of a Senior Project Manager and a Data Scientist from EPCC, Edinburgh's high performance computing centre.
It may be that RAMP is over-subscribed with offers for support in certain areas, in which case the coordinators will try to identify those teams best able to help initially, and let other know if and when further assistance might be needed. Such decisions might take a week or more during which appropriate stakeholder meetings will be held.
The RAMP initiative does not prevent or discourage any scientist from pursuing their own original lines of COVID-related research. However, RAMP's goal is to replace what might be a large number of relatively marginal contributions by novices to epidemic modelling with a robust, directed, and substantial effort that will genuinely enhance the UK's capacity to predict how the future of the pandemic will unfold.