The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Science family of journals are applying formidable resources to keep the scientific community and the public well informed on the coronavirus pandemic.
Science, published by AAAS, has shared research findings and made data swiftly available over recent weeks to spur scientific advances, outline public health opportunities to slow the spread of COVID-19, and help protect the wellbeing of people across the globe.
The journal has accelerated its publishing practices governing the release of research papers on coronavirus and urged scientists to post their submitted studies on preprint sites, all the while preserving the peer-review process to ensure the validity of the research published in the journals.
In addition, Science and AAAS are working to ensure infectious disease researchers retain access to safe laboratories to facilitate their COVID-19 research and to keep the research community, policymakers and the public updated through quick-turnaround teleconferences, Facebook Live events and other outreach efforts based on the latest research and news published in Science.
Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science, has been seeing to it that Science has coronavirus research papers reviewed as quickly as possible, promptly shares first release articles and makes them free to all. In addition, the News from Science team has been sharing regular updates on the latest research and reports from around the world. “Our top news reporters have become go-to sources for important news on the virus,” Thorp said. “And our Insights section is publishing commentary and ideas as quickly as we can.”
In a March 17 editorial, “Time to Pull Together,” Thorp called on institutions to limit their research work to the virus as well as clinical care and public health communications and urged fellow scientists to help virus researchers to ease challenges they are encountering such as finding childcare.
The journal Science Translational Medicine also published an editorial authored by experts on epidemiology, mathematics and two National Institutes of Health officials who called for prioritizing research on COVID-19 before focusing on the “confirmed cases and their geospatial spread.”
“AAAS is leading by example and incorporating science into our own decision-making. Early in this crisis, we made the decision to restrict non-essential travel and increase social distancing by requiring staff to telework,” said Sudip S. Parikh, AAAS’ chief executive officer and the executive publisher of the Science journals. “Ignoring evidence can harm lives during a crisis. That’s why, despite the workplace challenges, our staff are working harder than ever to ensure we are a sound voice for science.”
COVID-19 was well within AAAS’ radar even before Nicole Maylett, director of the Office of Meetings and Special Events, had finalized preparations for the 2020 Annual Meeting. By late January, Maylett and her team were discussing options for adding a scientific session focused on the coronavirus to the Feb. 13-16 gathering in Seattle, Wash.
The effort led to the “Coronavirus: Contextualizing Modern Responses to Pandemics” session being added to the AAAS Annual Meeting’s roster, as well as a related press briefing from genomic epidemiologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. During the symposium, researchers laid out the potential severity of the disease. “This is one of the most threatening outbreaks that I’ve seen in my career,” said Scott Dowell, deputy director in vaccine development and surveillance at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Media and social media outreach by AAAS has only climbed in recent weeks through the efforts of its staff in keeping journalists and the public updated on scientific information during the pandemic. “We’ve seen important and timely contributions from a number of staff throughout the organization,” said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS’ chief communications officer and director of the Office of Public Programs. “During this time of uncertainty and fear, AAAS and Science staff have responded with calm efficiency in communicating new, high quality information about COVID-19 as quickly and broadly as possible.”
The Science Press Package (SciPak) team, which drafts summaries of the Science journals’ weekly offerings and conducts regular outreach to journalists, has added the regular dispatch of Science research papers and commentaries on coronavirus. To date, research content has examined how the structure of the coronavirus informs vaccine development, how it binds to human cells, and how the public health system and social distancing can mitigate the spread of COVID-19, among other topics.
SciPak also hosted a teleconference for journalists about two Science research papers on how undocumented, or unknown, coronavirus infections increased the pace of the disease’s quick spread and another on the limited impact of travel restrictions on containing infections. Facebook Live events, Member Community discussions and social media outreach efforts on Twitter and Facebook also are being held in coordination with social media and membership staff.
Additional AAAS programs including SciLine, the Office of Government Relations and the Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues are also working to ensure factual and timely science continues to inform journalists and public policy decision-making.
SciLine, which connects journalists with scientific experts and is hosted by AAAS, held a briefing for journalists by two veteran health and science reporters and a public health leader on March 19 that focused on how best to report on the pandemic. Featured were The Washington Post’s Laura Helmuth, ProPublica’s Caroline Chen, and the American Public Health Association’s Georges Benjamin.
The speakers identified information potholes for journalists to avoid, particularly when citing data related to mortality rates and testing capacity. Underscoring the necessity of the long-held journalistic standard of accuracy, they said readers must be immediately informed of data errors and be provided a time element for any data included in stories because such information is rapidly changing as COVID-19 research findings continue to shift.
Rick Weiss, director of SciLine, said COVID-19 has triggered a doubling of the weekly requests SciLine is fielding for expert contacts.
“As a national and global event, and as a science news story, this is bigger than anything I have experienced in my decades in journalism,” said Weiss. “But so much is still uncertain, and there is a real risk that journalists can cause as much harm as good as they craft their stories. It’s not just about getting the facts right. It’s a lot about tone, about word choice, and being exceedingly careful about attribution.”
Parikh underscored the importance of ongoing communication outreach efforts to assure people have access to accurate information and to provide the latest research to scientists and public health professionals working on COVID-19. In an email to staff, members and supporters he said, “We at AAAS are redoubling our efforts to share credible, evidence-based research with decision-makers at all levels.”
[Associated image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases]