Scientists never had any doubts that we would get a vaccine against Covid-19. And they were right. Very few, however, predicted that such a vaccine would be available so quickly. History suggested that the vaccine would take years to develop and produce in large quantities. Yet, scientists who began researching Covid-19 in January 2020 were soon ready to begin phase 3 clinical trials to evaluate its effectiveness. Typically, it takes years for any drug or treatment to be ready for phase 3 trials. In this case, it took six months.
Correctly predicting an outcome but overestimating how long it will take to achieve it, has become common. We’ve seen it in climate change, in the digital revolution and genetic engineering. In these three cases, the experts correctly anticipated the nature of the changes, but not the extraordinary speed at which they are occurring.
While the scientific effort to create and produce the Covid-19 vaccine was global, the response from governments has been local
Scientific discovery and technological innovation define humanity. And we know that new technologies tend to have unanticipated consequences for society, the economy and politics. And of course, on governments, which normally lag in adapting and responding to conditions created by technological change.
What has happened with the Covid-19 vaccine – its invention, production and distribution – is a telling example of the dangerous gap between technology and politics. While the scientific effort to create and produce the Covid-19 vaccine was global, the response from governments has been local. Although laboratories in different countries shared data and expertise, important governments, such as China’s, hid or misrepresented it. Scientists showed vision, flexibility and speed; governments have been shortsighted, rigid and slow.
All this is not to say that there have not been rivalries between some scientists and fierce competition between pharmaceutical companies. But we all saw how scientists responded effectively to the crisis, while politicians and governments in many places denied the very existence of the pandemic or downplayed it. Some ridiculed social distancing policies and the use of masks, promoted fraudulent treatments and encouraged the use of amulets with magical powers. In India, Brazil and Mexico, the pandemic is wreaking havoc. Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro and Andrés Manuel López Obrador are not responsible for the pandemic, but they are guilty of reacting badly and much too slowly to the tragedy that their countries are experiencing.
The norms, rules and values that guide politicians are, of course, very different from those that guide scientists. While for scientists, merit is key, politicians prioritize the loyalty of their collaborators and tolerate their ineptitude. For scientists, decisions must be based on evidence, while traditional politicians weigh heavily on their previous experiences, anecdotes and intuition. While scientific research seeks change through the creation and adoption of new knowledge, politics tend to privilege ideas and ways of acting that are comfortable and well-known – even though in their speeches all politicians present themselves as agents of change. Finally, the scientific method is based on reason and the empirical verification of claims whose validity can be verified and replicated by others. In politics, on the other hand, personal passions and beliefs prevail, not to mention religious beliefs and, in some cases, faith in magic.
While for scientists, merit is key, politicians prioritize loyalty
All of the above does not mean, of course, that some scientists aren’t influenced by passions, interests and prejudices, or that politicians never endorse meritocracy, rationalism and the promotion of change. But what this contrast reveals are some of the sources of the divide between science and politics.
The backwardness of politics is brutally manifested in the stagnation of governments, in their systemic dysfunction and especially in the abysmal quality of the decision-making processes in matters of public policy. Politicians would do well to adopt the spirit of experimentation that has always distinguished science. This, together with the openness to new ideas, the dispassionate evaluation of the evidence and the force of empirical reality could begin to rebuild the credibility of democracies in the face of the multiple crises that threaten them.
Bridging the divide between today’s booming science and bombing politics is no easy feat. But it is also imperative.