Science Lessons From the Pandemic

Research leaders at Pew event discuss how the response to COVID-19 can improve the practice of—and trust in—science

Science Lessons From the Pandemic
Virtual event with health experts webinar

COVID-19 has brought challenges that the world has not faced in more than a century: over 140 million cases and more than 3 million deaths since late 2019. It has disrupted economies, strained government budgets, and separated loved ones—and it has brought great attention to the role of science in society. The rapid development of vaccines to counter the coronavirus has been a testament to what science can accomplish, but it also has raised doubts among some.

On April 16, The Pew Charitable Trusts hosted an online discussion about how to build trust in science, and how the pandemic can provide lessons to change the practice of science for the better.

The panel featured Esther Krofah, executive director of the FasterCures center at the Milken Institute; Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences; and Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Molly Irwin, Pew’s vice president for research and science, moderated the event.

The panelists contributed essays to Pew’s annual journal of facts and ideas, Trend. The most recent issue is called “Science Matters” and consists of 10 articles on the current state of science, with topics that include the importance of data to improve policymaking, ways in which scientists can be better communicators, and an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci. The underlying theme for the issue is the impact of the pandemic on the practice of science.

“When you have a crisis like this and science rises to the challenge, it is an opportunity like no other to demonstrate not only the worth of educating scientists and having a science workforce, but what the benefits are from decades of investment in basic research,” McNutt told the online audience.

“The unprecedented speed at which the vaccine was developed wasn’t because of things we just started learning about as the pandemic was descending on us, but rather it was decades of investment in understanding mRNA [messenger RNA, the basis for the two leading vaccines], understanding how viruses work, understanding different coronaviruses that humanity has encountered in the past,” she continued. “And this is such a great opportunity to convince people not only that science is worth investing in long term, but that when the chips are down, you want the scientists to rise to the challenge. I honestly think that this was science’s finest hour.”

Although the vaccines were developed, tested, and made available at a record pace, that is not the norm in science. Krofah noted that it is far more typical for a new drug or therapy to take decades to move from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside. Her organization works to include patient voices in medical research, increase incentives for development of drugs that don’t necessarily have a high profit potential for pharmaceutical manufacturers, and make better use of technology in drug development, including electronic medical records.

“How do we balance innovation with speed?” Krofah asked. “There’s so much around innovation that can be sped up without really shortcutting or changing evidentiary standards.”

Her research center, FasterCures, studied the Food and Drug Administration’s response to the coronavirus and found that the agency did not neglect its usual work, even as staff poured long hours into responding to the spread of COVID-19. Acknowledging that the pace was not sustainable without new resources, she said the pandemic response nevertheless offered lessons about the speed of government reviews and information sharing among researchers that could demonstrate new ways forward in development of drugs for other diseases—but only if the biomedical community and federal regulators adapt.

“If I can be concerned about anything, it’s that we forget quite quickly, and we go back to our normal practices,” Krofah said. “What we really need to do is invest in those platforms and technologies as well as the way we work together and formalize that going forward for other disease conditions.”

Underlying much of the public conversation about the virus over the past year has been the degree of trust in science. The Pew Research Center recently asked people around the globe how much they trusted scientists to do what’s right for the public. Only 38% of Americans answered “a lot.”

Parikh, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said one major reason is that scientists have become removed from the communities they serve. The precision of science often demands jargon and other language that is less accessible to the general public, and research is often conducted in university towns and on the East and West coasts, he said, furthering the divide between many scientists and other Americans.

“When you don’t have those relationships, it’s very hard for someone to say, gosh, I don’t know the science behind this vaccine, but I know scientists who work in academic research related to this, and that relationship tells me they share values with me. They care about their children, they care about their community, and they care about this nation,” Parikh said. “When we don’t have those relationships formed ahead of time, we don’t have trust upon which to build. When scientists come in and say I’m here to save the day, that doesn’t quite work with people you haven’t met before. So I think it’s really important that scientists are participating in their community, in the PTA, on the school board, on the county commission.”

Equally important to building trust, the panelists agreed, was increasing diversity among scientists and other researchers. They noted that the dearth in scientists of color has probably contributed to lower levels of trust about the vaccine among Black Americans and pointed to the work of Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist at the National Institutes of Health, who helped develop the Moderna vaccine. An African American, she is now taking a leading role in speaking to communities of color to explain the science about COVID-19 and help overcome vaccine hesitancy.

“She had her grandmother and grandfather from rural North Carolina deep in her mind and heart,” said McNutt. “That’s who she was trying to save.”

Parikh said diversifying the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce “in no way diminishes scientific excellence. In fact, it enhances it.” The researchers behind the vaccines were “White Americans, Black Americans, immigrants, men, women, international collaborators. And you say, gosh, is that an exception? It is not. It is the rule in good science.”

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