There is no need to point out that this crisis could have been avoided, or at least its impact on public health and the economy reduced if only the technical know-how of scientists, doctors, public health experts, epidemiologists, social scientists, plus data from mathematical prediction models, had been applied in time. In countries where this happened, there is a clear correlation between prompt decision-making based on expert knowledge and the positive outcomes for both the population and the economy.
The lack of scientific-medical knowledge is particularly apparent based on the large amount of information in the public domain that is devoid of a basic level of precision and truth. The widespread use of social networks has frequently led to lowering the bar on the quality of information and data that the population receives. And it is hard for citizens – and their public representatives – to make the right decisions when the information available is neither precise, rigorous or even true.
Although we have dedicated our lives to the optimistic advance of science and technology, we are concerned about the future. We believe there will be challenges ahead to match the coronavirus – not only in the realm of global pandemics or drug-resistant infectious diseases, but also regarding issues such as climate change and the incorporation of artificial intelligence, neurotechnology and biotechnology into society.
The urgent need for science goes beyond this crisis. We’re talking about science in a broad sense, encompassing medicine and engineering. After all, medicine is the science of the human body and engineering applies scientific discoveries to the world we live in. So now is the time to bring science and scientific thinking into the corridors of power, just as legal and economic thinking was brought in over the past decades to lay the intellectual foundation of our modern political economy. As a measure of how far we have yet to go, consider the fact that more than half of the 535 members of the US Congress are lawyers while 17 are doctors and only three are scientists.
Rather than recruiting scientists as political leaders, we must inject scientific thinking into both new and existing institutions. Fundamental conceptual errors in economic thinking caused indescribable suffering to billions last century. Whether it is fighting pandemics or global climate change, scientific thinking – and the speed with which power and scientific resources for science are mobilized – will determine the wellbeing and prosperity of billions of people around the world.
But how do we incorporate scientists and scientific thinking into society’s governance and decision-making? We believe that now is the time to institutionalize the role of science in the organs of the state. Our proposal suggests several potential courses of action. First, there is the need to strengthen the role of science in countries’ governments. As has become obvious during this crisis, the economy depends on us first tackling the most fundamental of society’s problems, such as health and climate change.
Just as it is standard practice to have a deputy prime minister for the economy within a government, we think there should also be a deputy prime minister for science who carries the same weight. The person in in this role would have a professional scientific and medical background and could coordinate aspects of health, technology, development and education.
In addition to a deputy prime minister for science, which as far as we know does not exist anywhere in the world, we think that scientific advisory councils should be more rigorously and formally institutionalized as fundamental entities within any government. These advisory councils could be either national or international. An example would be the creation of International Scientific Reserves, a scientific advisory council that operates on a global level.
Besides the actual government, political parties operating in parliamentary democracies should also be seeking to strengthen the role of science in their internal discourse and decision-making. The opposition should have the equivalent of a scientific spokesmen and a scientific advisory council. By incorporating these professionals into their ranks, governments and political parties could concentrate on issues of genuine importance, reducing the shortsightedness that unfortunately dominates the political discourse in so many countries.
Besides including scientific roles within governments, we believe it is essential to strengthen the role of science within legislative bodies. All parliaments should have an official scientific advisory body, just as every parliament has a legal counsel. There are many issues – and there will be many more – that are technically difficult to understand if you do not have a basic scientific background. Parliamentarians should have first-hand information on all issues with a significant social impact as they represent the public and have an obligation to represent them in an informed manner.
It would be equally appropriate to incorporate technical knowledge into the judiciary. Judges who interpret laws to decide on real-life cases need to have first-hand scientific information. In fact, it would be appropriate for the highest judicial bodies to have advisory councils.
Finally, the media should also have professionals to hand with a scientific background to ensure that the information they distribute is based on reliable data and statistics. The press is a common good and has a huge responsibility when it comes to influencing public opinion and warning the public in crises such as the one we are experiencing. Unfortunately, during this pandemic, we have often seen alarmist medical information on the front pages of some of the world’s most popular newspapers that does not correspond to reliable data. This lack of accuracy is harmful as it undermines society’s confidence in its own ability to face the future. Many newspapers do have professionals with a scientific background they can consult, but the existence of scientific advisory boards is not a common or institutionalized occurrence.
To conclude these recommendations, we believe, along with many others, that it is more important than ever to strengthen the connection between science and society through education. This can be achieved by placing greater emphasis on science in schools and popularizing science for adults. We should encourage scientific careers and create a strong institutional system to deal with potential crises, so that scientific activity is maintained and generates the solutions that society needs.
Scientific methodology and thinking are among mankind’s greatest achievements and are tools that can help us to overcome the challenges of the future. We have magnificent professionals – experts in health, infectious diseases, climate, artificial intelligence, neurobiology and biotechnology. Let us take advantage of their knowledge and training to lead society into the future intelligently; let us incorporate them at all levels. They would be delighted since scientists are working for humanity and the future of all of us. Let us make use of them. It is urgent.
International Scientific Reserves
Let’s have a look at some of the most important institutions in the United States: the Social Security Administration, National Laboratories, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA and the National Security Department, all of which have their origins in the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Cold War and 9/11.
Crises have always been catalysts for institutional renewal and reinvention, and the coronavirus pandemic will be no exception. Even now, when all we can see is tragedy and emergency, the coalitions that are forming and the solutions that are emerging will lay the foundation for the institutions of the future.
The creation of the largest public-private supercomputing partnership in history in the US is a prime example. The Covid-19 Supercomputing Consortium has brought together voluntary elements from government, universities and the private sector to speed up the process of discovering new treatments and vaccines against coronavirus with the help of supercomputers. The Department of Energy is at the helm along with IBM, a private institution. Other technology giants, usually considered rivals, are contributing skills, from Amazon and Microsoft to Google. NASA and the NSF have also signed up, as have seven national laboratories, including the historic Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Sandia, not to mention more than 10 universities, from MIT to the University of Texas and the University of California. Researchers from around the world can access the supercomputers for free, and the international dimension will grow as supercomputing centers in England and Switzerland are incorporated.
This consortium was conceived and launched in just five days, without a single contract, and is a true reflection of the catalytic power of an unprecedented crisis. It should be evident that a global pandemic – the microscopic equivalent of an alien invasion – requires unity and cooperation. The virus does not distinguish between institutions, passports, identity or political persuasion. Within nation states, we are seeing numerous examples of mobilization, but it is also clear that international unity and global coordination has not been part of the picture.
The need to transcend the horrors of war coupled with the desire for economic prosperity drove earlier examples of regional and global cooperation; they led to the creation of the United Nations and the NATO alliance, along with the emergence of the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Together with Avi Loeb, head of Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, we believe that now is the time to create a new body – the International Scientific Reserves, composed of scientists and organizations with voluntary participation. These reserves would bring together the best of the public and private sectors, recognizing that the scientific capacity of any member state is distributed between government organizations, academia, foundations and the private sector. The objective would be to provide free advice to all institutions across the world to prevent future crises, mobilize human or technical resources and facilitate coordinated action. The reservists, an army of volunteers from scientific, technological and medical institutions, with experts in all areas, would donate their time and skill and would be ready to act when needed.
Crises and emergencies require alternative mechanisms for leadership, funding and coordination between institutions. By preparing ahead, Scientific Reserves would be ready to mobilize adequate resources in emergencies, just as military reserve forces prepare in peacetime and mobilize in times of crisis. The international dimension is also crucial, as researchers from a variety of disciplines, institutions and countries would be able to detect, prepare for and respond to threats, sharing real-time information and providing a global coordination mechanism.
It is now clear that adequate scientific preparation for natural disasters is key to saving millions of lives and billions of euros in the global economy. We need to find a better way to harness the power of science to keep our world safe. Science will not only help us defeat the deadly coronavirus, but will also be critical in addressing other major threats such as climate change and antibiotic resistance. If ever mankind needed a wake-up call to recognize the value of scientific readiness and collaboration, it is surely this pandemic. Science is vital to our future prosperity and health; it always has been and always will be.
Rafael Yuste is a neuroscientist and professor at Columbia University (US) and Ikerbasque research professor at the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC) in San Sebastián.
Darío Gil is a doctor in computer and electrical engineering. He currently manages the research branch of IBM.
English version by Heather Galloway.