The devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic have served as a wake-up call to the scientific community, offering it the opportunity to emerge more effective at addressing society’s most pressing needs, according to speakers at last week’s AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
Hosted each year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the policy forum addresses challenges at the intersection of science and policy and their implications for society. The meeting’s hundreds of attendees include stakeholders from STEM professionals and science journalists to policymakers and diplomats.
The AAAS Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy designed the 45th annual forum, held virtually on Oct. 13 and 14, to analyze and offer solutions to two crises dominating the collective conscience of the scientific community in recent months. Day one featured discussions on strengths and weaknesses in the response of the STEM enterprise to the pandemic. Day two addressed structural racism in the sciences, exploring ways for AAAS and the wider community to serve as leaders in working toward greater equity.
“I think it’s safe to say that this forum is unlike any that have preceded it,” said AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh in an introductory address on the first day of the conference. “This S&T forum is going to get beyond the usual abstract policy thinking to touch on concrete policy choices and their implications. … We’re going to explore the lessons of 2020 and the opportunities that have been born of this moment.”
Alan Leshner, Parikh’s predecessor as CEO of AAAS, echoed in his own comments the idea that this year has served as an important moment of reflection.
“From my perspective, we’re living in the midst of perhaps the most tumultuous period in the history of the relationship between science, policy and the rest of society,” Leshner said. “This year’s S&T Policy Forum really reflects that complexity.”
This year’s forum also honored a noteworthy anniversary in the realm of science policy. In 1945, Vannevar Bush, director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development, published “Science, The Endless Frontier,” a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that laid out a vision for the country’s post-war scientific enterprise. Bush’s report provided a blueprint for the university system of research, argued that the federal government should play a critical role in supporting that research, and introduced many other major ideas that have guided U.S. science policy for the past 75 years.
“This has left an enormous legacy,” said Maureen Kearney, chief programs officer at AAAS, during the forum. “We have this historical context to consider too as we delve into current issues at the forefront of science policy.”
In a keynote address on the forum’s opening afternoon, Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighted long-standing problems within the scientific community related to distrust of international collaboration, the erosion of public support for universities, an increase in misinformation online, climate change, election security, and inequality. While the pandemic has amplified these enduring challenges, McNutt noted, it has also brought important lessons on how to solve them.
Prior to the pandemic, Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, the largest cancer center in the U.S., made the decision to oust three scientists who were sharing pre-decisional research proposals with colleagues in China. In response to that event and other concerns that the nation’s research centers and universities might be vehicles for intellectual property theft, NAS established a roundtable to spark conversation between researchers, funding institutions and representatives of the intelligence community.
“That was all pre-Covid; then came Covid, and all of the issues with China came to a head,” McNutt said. “What had started as a mostly academic problem was now escalating such that many people of Chinese descent in the U.S. were actually fearing for their own safety.”
Rather than sending each country into its own corner, however, international cooperation and communication has improved in recent months, McNutt has found.
“We have noticed at the National Academy that we are incorporating international voices in our work much more than we ever did before, because before, we thought we had to fly people in from other countries,” she said. “With foreign travel on hold due to the virus, we can easily build virtual networks abroad.”
The pandemic also exacerbated the dangers of the climate crisis, McNutt noted. Virus-related fear made people less likely to leave their property behind and seek shelter during hurricanes, wildfires and other extreme weather events.
“Covid, along with natural disasters, is a perfect storm,” McNutt said.
Despite these added challenges, though, the pandemic has provided important lessons on how to mitigate our carbon footprint. This year’s lifestyle changes have reduced emissions associated with daily commutes, office space and airline travel, and the global output of greenhouse gases is set to decline in 2020.
“I view every crisis as an opportunity,” McNutt said. “During a crisis, people are more willing to put aside their differences and work together toward a common goal. Barriers that seemed insurmountable before suddenly seem like they aren’t such a big deal anymore.”
“The pandemic has taken a huge toll,” she added. “We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to ensure that we use this trial to emerge much better than we were before.”
During a panel on the performance of the nation’s health innovation system, Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, discussed the unprecedented ways in which science and politics have interacted this year. Thorp has authored numerous opinion pieces for Science criticizing the president’s pandemic response, with The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine and other premier journals following his lead. When Scientific American came out in support of Joe Biden last month, it represented the first presidential endorsement in the publication’s 175-year history.
“What are we doing? We’re speaking out as loudly as we can,” Thorp said. “And I think we’ve broken through a little bit of a barrier. For 75 years — since Vannevar Bush — scientists have wanted to retreat into our labs and look at our spreadsheets and let other people stand up for other folks or for science.”
“It’s pretty unanimous that what has happened is unacceptable,” Thorp added. “We don’t have any choice but to do this. This is a crisis, it’s a catastrophe. If we’re not going to play every card we’ve got right now, when are we going to do it?”