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Delivering Science in a Crisis

The scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster can guide research during a pandemic

February 9, 2021 By: Marcia McNutt Read time:

In this Issue:

  • Winter 2021
  • Science Matters
  • Crunch: Science Held in High Esteem
  • Foreword: Acknowledging Our Limits
  • Rebuild Trust in Science
  • Data & Better Decisions
  • Science in a Crisis
  • Efficiencies in Science
  • Science, Policy, and Practice
  • Science & Religion
  • Voices: Pandemic’s Impact on Science
  • Five Questions: Dr. Anthony Fauci
  • Scientists & Communications
  • View All Other Issues
Delivering Science in a Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy human toll all over the world; at this writing, more than 1 million people have died, and more than 40 million have been infected. As winter approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, cases are alarmingly on the rise again in the U.S. and Europe. The virus has disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. and other countries, exposing long-standing economic disparities and inequities in health care. The U.S. is experiencing extreme unemployment. Researchers have mobilized as never before to develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. But it could be many more months before effective vaccines are widely available. In the meantime, students and teachers have returned to school, either virtually, in person, or a mix of both, and national, state, and local decision-makers are making difficult choices about how to balance the protection of public health and safety with the restoration of critical societal functions. Society is depending on science to deliver us from this health, social, and economic crisis.

An obvious role for science is to develop novel vaccines and effective therapies, and in that pursuit, biomedical research has retooled diverse laboratories toward this singular problem. But there is a broader array of answers we need from science to see our way forward—for example, how to mitigate the spread of the virus, prevent a recurrence, and design a more resilient future for humanity. To effectively provide these answers, we must recognize that science in crisis is special. There is an urgency to act, because faster action will save lives. But science in crisis is also science in a crucible, its results tested by fire—not in a lab, but with the world watching. Here I offer a framework for providing answers based on experience developed with my colleague Gary Machlis during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. (I was director of the U.S. Geological Survey at the time; Machlis was science adviser to the director of the National Park Service.) At the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, we are now embracing this framework to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we fight this worldwide emergency, employing actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science can help society recover from this crisis and also emerge better positioned to respond to inevitable future challenges for many generations to come.

In the early days of the crisis, national leaders needed to make informed decisions on short notice. They needed actionable science, defined as science delivered to a decision-maker that is timely, understood by the nonscientist, provided in the context of the decision at hand, of the highest standards that timeliness allows, and meaningful—in terms of safety, economics, health, welfare, security, or any other values that matter to society. At the National Academies, our standing committee on emerging infectious diseases has provided actionable science to the U.S. government on topics such as the effectiveness of homemade face masks, the costs and benefits of social distancing, crisis standards of care, and the seasonality of the virus.

And because the pandemic has an immediate impact on almost all aspects of daily life, we partnered with the National Science Foundation to launch a network that has brought the full range of scientific expertise across the social, natural, and biomedical sciences, providing actionable science on issues such as testing strategies on college campuses, how COVID-19 data points should be used in decision-making, and how to encourage cooperation with contract tracing and protective behaviors such as wearing masks.

The guidance, intended for decision-makers at the federal, state, and local levels, draws on research from communications, social psychology, and behavioral economics as well as lessons learned from successful public health campaigns such as tobacco prevention and seatbelt use. The network is poised to address these and other questions that are being raised by mayors, governors, local representatives, and other leaders.

Although much focus in the early days of a crisis is by necessity on actionable science, it is also important to plan for the longer term. Whereas it took mere weeks for the coronavirus to upend almost every sector of society, it is looking increasingly likely that a full recovery could take years. For the foreseeable future, policymakers and communities will struggle to make decisions now that position them well for an uncertain future: Even with vaccines available, will COVID-19 be with us for the long term, like the seasonal flu or the measles? For this type of longer-term planning, strategic science involves interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals planning for a range of possible future scenarios, along with estimating their uncertainties and considering their potential consequences for health, the environment, the economy, and infrastructure. The scenarios allow decision-makers to invest resources to prevent a long-term legacy of problems that cascade, in this case, from the virus, to people’s health, to society, to national economies, and even to global political stability.

The National Academies as an organization is well positioned to provide strategic science, and we have launched a major initiative in this area. We have the capacity to convene experts across the full range of natural, life, environmental, and social sciences; engineering; and medicine. And those experts, in turn, can reach out to more colleagues to provide additional expertise as scenarios develop. The beneficiaries of scenario planning could be federal agencies; national, state, and local governments; nongovernmental institutions; and even private industry.

One of our new initiative’s first topics is to examine how the pandemic could affect rental property evictions and the impact on low- and middle-income communities and disadvantaged groups. Other topics for analysis include the cognitive development and educational attainment of K-12 students who are low-income or have special needs and an examination of the nation’s food supply chain. Or, as the pandemic wears on, strategic science could be used to weigh a range of scenarios that could ensure that the capacity of research universities—major stimulators of innovation, ingenuity, and economic growth—is maintained in an era of severe financial challenges and fiscal constraints.

Although no one would wish a pandemic on a society—or a major oil spill for that matter—crises provide an opportunity to conduct irreplaceable science. This is a special type of research that takes advantage of the unusual conditions existing during a crisis, requires rapid response by funders and researchers, is constrained by a requirement not to interfere with response efforts or actionable science, and poses challenges for scientific reproducibility. The results might, or might not, be directly relevant to the solutions to the crisis at hand.

For example, no scientist would be able to devise an experiment in which a large fraction of the global population is asked to socially distance for months, but now that it has happened, it is important to understand the impacts on mental health, family relationships, and the social fabric of society. Such knowledge will be valuable in understanding how best to respond to a second wave of COVID-19 or another pandemic.

In another example, ocean scientists have been hoping to organize a “quiet day” for the ocean—a 24-hour period of relative silence from the cultural noise of human disturbance. Instead, thanks to the pandemic, they got months of relative quiet to observe the impact on marine life of turning down the noise level in the ocean. Although most irreplaceable science will be done by researchers at universities and other labs, I see a role for the National Academies in helping to identify important opportunities for irreplaceable science and in integrating the results where appropriate into actionable and strategic science.

Data Points

2010: The year of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Data Points

Marcia McNutt, geophysicist and 22nd president of the National Academy of Sciences, is using the framework developed with colleague Gary Machlis during the oil spill crisis to help address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data Points

Actionable science is science delivered to a decision-maker that is timely, understood by the nonscientist, provided in the context of the decision at hand and of the highest standard possible. TWEET

Data Points

Strategic science involves interdisciplinary teams of experts and professionals planning for a range of possible future scenarios. TWEET

The COVID-19 pandemic is the classic example of a problem that we will not solve anywhere until we solve it everywhere. This framework of actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science (and with that I include engineering and medicine) will bring much-needed focus and cohesion to public- and private-sector research efforts related to the pandemic and encourage collaboration and cooperation in the United States and around the world. We’ve already seen many examples of scientists teaming up across borders in new ways to work on developing vaccines and treatments. During an era of growing nationalization, researchers must resist that constriction and continue to share knowledge so that lessons learned in one country can inform response and recovery in other nations.

Our national and global research enterprise houses the expertise to conquer the pandemic and at the same time help shape a stronger, better prepared nation and world. As we fight this worldwide emergency, employing actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science can help society recover from this crisis and also emerge better positioned to respond to inevitable future challenges for many generations to come.

The Takeaway

Although much focus early in a crisis is by necessity on actionable science, it is also important to plan for the longer term.

Marcia McNutt is a geophysicist and the president of the National Academy of Sciences. A version of her essay first appeared in Issues in Science and Technology, a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.

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