Science is Essential to Public Policy
Five questions with Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. He oversees an extensive portfolio of basic and applied research to prevent, diagnose, and treat established infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as emerging diseases such as Ebola, Zika, and COVID-19.
Why did you first get into science and become a doctor?
I come from a family that was very interested in public service, and I attended Regis High School, a Jesuit high school, in New York City, where the theme is service for others. I got very keenly interested in humanitarian issues—the interaction of various civilizations with each other, philosophy, and all the things that go along with a classical education—Greek, Latin, and romance languages. I also liked science, chemistry, and particularly biology. When I looked for a career to combine my affinity for wanting to be with people and my aptitude for science, I decided to be a physician. I spent three years in an infectious disease immunology fellowship at the National Institutes of Health, and I found I liked the science of human issues, human disease, human pathogenic mechanisms, and that led me to where I am right now. Everyone should get at least an exposure to science—it satisfies your curiosity to explore the unknown. And when you like it, you fall in love with it.
What do you wish people better understood about science and the practice of science?
Particularly now as we’re in the profound situation of living with COVID-19—the most important pandemic in 102 years—people need to understand that science is something that is self-correcting and exploratory. When you’re dealing with a static situation, the scientific facts don’t change, and your policy and your interpretation generally don’t change. But when you’re dealing with an evolving situation like this one, I wish the public could understand that science collects data and evidence at any given moment and makes decisions out of necessity that you have to make. You have to be humble enough, open-minded enough, and flexible enough to know that as things evolve and the data evolve and you get more evidence, that you are likely to change a recommendation or to change a policy. That’s not a mistake. That’s science helping you to adjust to the evolving situation.
Pew Research Center surveys show that only about a third of Americans are confident that scientists act in the public interest. How can that be improved?
What we’re living through now is an opportunity for that. There are many complex reasons why people might have a lower level of esteem for science than you would like them to have. First, there’s almost an anti-authority mode in the country because of the political divisiveness. Scientists, because we deal with facts and talk about facts and try to preach facts, are often looked upon as authority figures. So any kind of a negative feedback on authority might tend to brush off on scientists. Another thing is that sometimes scientists tell people things they don’t want to hear. And also, scientists are human. They have foibles and inadequacies and make mistakes. Since they’re supposedly the people who are trumpeting the truth, when some of them step out of line and distort data or distort facts, which happens unfortunately, that casts a negative reflection on all scientists. But in general, I think scientists, if you take away the divisiveness that we’re going through now, are generally well thought of. They’re people of good faith who want to get the truth out.
Is part of the problem the ability of scientists to communicate effectively and for them to reach new and broader audiences?
You want to get information that’s important for the health of the people to a variety of different segments of society. Not everybody listens to podcasts, not everybody looks at TV news. That’s the reason why during the pandemic I do Instagram interviews. I also do interviews with rap artists and entertainers, because you do an Instagram with one of them, and you get to a group of people that you never would get to otherwise. Some scientists, for one reason or another, either talk down dramatically to an audience to whom they should not be talking down, or they feel they have to appear, if they’re on national TV, to be really, really smart. My formula is when you’re trying to explain something, it is not important for you to appear smart. It is important for you to be understood. Because if you’re not understood, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you have failed in your communication. So you’ve got to walk a delicate balance of saying things in a clear way and in a way that doesn’t talk down to people. I use the motto that I learned through my eight years of Jesuit education: precision of thought and economy of expression. Know precisely the message that you want to convey and say it in absolutely as few words as possible.
How would you like to see science inform policymaking?
I think science is totally essential to public policy. Policy should not be made in a data-free zone. Policy needs to be made based on the best possible information. The scientific process provides policymakers with that. That’s the situation that we’re in right now, which is not that easy, as you might imagine. But when you’re talking about policy around sensitive issues that involve the economy, schools, employment, all kinds of things—in the best possible world the information that the scientists give you would inform policy. But remember—policymakers get more than just scientific information. They get other information that relates to the economy, information that relates to other aspects of society. So the input that I give as a scientist is part of a multifaceted process of policymaking. You just hope that it’s dominant when you’re dealing with a public health issue.