From Big Sean‘s and Hit-Boy’s music video for “What A Life”
At the start of the pandemic the scientific and medical community came together to train their R&D on one global problem, in the process pushing researchers into new forms of rapid communication and collaboration.
The results are a benefit to all of us: a rapid understanding of the virus and its potential mutations on which governments based mass health measures, and a sequencing of the COVID genome, which led to vaccines.
These efforts also had the side effect of showing just what can be achieved if resources are pooled and targeted.
“The scale of cooperation and collaboration is staggering,” Joseph Bak-Coleman, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, and Carl Bergstrom, professor of biology at the University of Washington, write in Scientific American.
“Scientists with scant experience in public communication learned to work closely with journalists, informing a worried public about what was happening, what to expect next and what people could do to keep themselves safe,” the authors note.
Large-scale surveys of scientists in 2020 and 2021, as reported in Nature, reveal that roughly a third of researchers in the U.S. and Europe contributed to the effort.
This was a multi-disciplinary all-hands on deck moment. Biologists joined forces with virologists and immunologists to focus on the new pathogen. Economists, physicists, engineers, statisticians, psychologists, sociologists, and more — dropped everything to learn about COVID and figure out how they could contribute.
“The urgency of COVID drove scientists to adapt. Discussions that previously took place at conferences, on the telephone or in revision notes on manuscripts moved to social media platforms, review sites such as PubPeer and all-hours Zoom rooms. Researchers and clinicians spontaneously organized into focused teams and working groups.”
Most of the time science is a slow and tedious business. Traditional modes of publication and peer review were far too slow for this crisis.
“We embraced a rapid alternative model: preprint archives, where papers are posted prior to peer review or consideration at a scientific journal.”
The number of papers submitted to medRxiv, a key repository of biomedical preprints, increased ten-fold in the first few months of the pandemic.
“These changes also shifted early-stage science from a private activity to part of the public discourse,” observe Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom. “Instead of presenting the world with polished scientific articles, investigators worked in open view, thinking aloud, offering preliminary speculations, arguing, making wrong turns, following dead ends and pursuing some hypotheses that would ultimately be refuted.”
There were some downsides. For instance, “flawed blood-sample research” reported in an April 2020 medRxiv paper purported to show that COVID was a mild disease with a very low fatality rate.
Although the scientific community quickly pointed out a host of problems with the work, “people seeking to avoid business restrictions, school closures and mask mandates ignored the criticism and used the paper to undermine public health interventions,” say Bak-Coleman and Bergstrom.
Rapid and unorthodox channels of communication also could not solve all the problems scientists encountered. Most critically, the scientific community has been largely unsuccessful at anticipating and managing the human element of the pandemic.
“A collective failure to stop misinformation from spreading on social and traditional media platforms has left large segments of the population unvaccinated, vulnerable and unwilling to embrace measures such as masks and social distancing.”
However, the ability to tackle and find solutions (in form of vaccine) in astonishingly quick time has shown how the world can harness expertise if it unites to organize, learn and coordinate.
Missing from this paper by the scientists is the financial motivation — profiteering, by another name — among certain medical research and PPE sales/distribution companies, which also contributed to shortening the pandemic’s lifespan, but not for altruistic reasons.
The capacity of the hive mind in action has led to calls for it to be trained on other major universal health issues such as curing cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
Surely there is no more pressing emergency than climate change, which only collective action can solve. In the book Ministry of the Future, author Kim Stanley Robinson imagines how the world might form an international taskforce to tackles global heating. It involves both large scale geo-engineering projects drilling into the arctic ice and the vital contributions of the world’s banking community who have to be cajoled into replacing the existing financial system with blockchain tracked Carbon coins that derive value from carbon reduction.
This is the type of big thinking that can and should be happening, especially since it’s within our power to do so.