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Build science back better — New Year's resolutions for the incoming administration

Build science back better — New Year's resolutions for the incoming administration
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After a global pandemic on a scale not known for 100 years, a contentious election season and a generally tumultuous year, it is worth considering how the incoming administration can use the upheavals of 2020 to form practical resolutions for the New Year.

Develop a global playbook. In a world more interdependent than ever, science provides the global model for how to confront the major challenges of our time. Countries that managed the pandemic best, used key learnings from SARS and MERS outbreaks as models for their response. The recent vaccine announcements demonstrate immigrant contributions and global collaborations. The couple leading the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine team are Turkish immigrants working in Germany. The head of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, is from Greece. Stéphane Bancel, Cambridge-based Moderna’s CEO, is French, as is Pascal Soriot, CEO of AstraZeneca PLC, working on the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.   Best practices are just that — we can learn from one another and adapt those learnings to our own situations. This applies not just to the immediate medical issues around the pandemic, but to the economy as well. Which leads me to my next point.

Recognize that science and the economy are inexorably linked. The world’s economy will not recover until COVID-19 is under control and only the work of scientists will help us achieve that, but that is not the only reason to support it. Science creates jobs as does government investment. More than 40 years ago, computer scientists working on department of defense projects assembled the “network of networks” that became the internet — unleashing an extraordinary global economic driver that today employs billions of people. Cutting research funding may satisfy some short-term economic goals, but it is damaging to the economy long-term, even when we don’t have a pandemic.

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Keep politics out of science. Placing political appointees in positions to influence research is extremely dangerous. All science builds on previous work. If data are deliberately skewed to serve a particular agenda, they can influence generations of flawed science. If science is no longer verifiable, nor evaluated by legitimate peers, it will lose its way. This is as much an economic issue as it is a scientific one. Corporate leaders and government officials, among others, need to know that the data they are using is trustworthy so they can make informed decisions. Politically-biased science data serves no purpose and is a recipe for disaster. Worse, the more science is politicized, the more the public will distrust it, which leads to the next resolution.

Improve communications between the scientific community and the public at large. While most people do respect science, at least in the abstract, the challenge of whether to trust it is often a result of the scientific method in action. Science advances in zigs and zags, by teams of dedicated people working for years before new discoveries are ready for public application, not the lone researcher who makes the “breakthrough discovery” in a matter of hours. There are often frustrating dead ends, hypotheses that don’t hold up and more questions raised than answers. But this is a good thing; it means that the system of checks and balances that are used in science are working. Scientists need to continually improve their communications skills to connect research findings to the general public. And the media and entertainment industries can help by being more realistic in their portrayal of scientific research and not calling out inevitable contradictions as reasons for science skepticism.

Increase investment in STEM education. STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) has been an education buzzword for more than 30 years, yet industry leaders still bemoan the lack of qualified job applicants for today’s tech-driven economy. A lot has already been done to encourage young people to become more engaged in STEM but it’s not just about training enough scientists or engineers and encouraging diversity, it’s the broader development of analytical thinking skills that are crucial to creating a well-informed citizenry. Restoring the Obama administration’s White House Science Fair, would be a great way to showcase students’ passion for exploration, as well as encouraging business leaders and even entertainers with STEM degrees to speak about how STEM helped their lives and careers.

After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1956, America’s response — to send a man to the moon — made science cool. We need that same spirit again, to confront all the major issues of our time. Let us hope that the COVID-19 vaccines announcements will restore the “cool” and lead to a more hopeful 2021.

Nicholas B. Dirks, PhD, is the president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences.