Covid-19 delivers valuable lessons on how science operates

Epidemiologists, virologists and immunologists have become household names

A volunteer is injected with a syringe containing either the vaccine or a placebo, at the start of a clinical trial being set up by TASK, a clinical research organisation based in Cape Town, to see whether the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, which is given to babies in the country to protect them against tuberculosis, helps limit the damage caused by Covid-19. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty

A volunteer is injected with a syringe containing either the vaccine or a placebo, at the start of a clinical trial being set up by TASK, a clinical research organisation based in Cape Town, to see whether the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, which is given to babies in the country to protect them against tuberculosis, helps limit the damage caused by Covid-19. Photograph: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty

 

Scientists have been central to Ireland’s Covid-19 response. As we move from the initial reaction, to a potentially bumpy phase of lifting and applying restrictions, sustaining public trust in science and scientists will require us talking about how science is done, as well as the outcomes of its work.

The ways in which scientists reach consensus are as important as the findings: process is at the core of our expertise.

Our collective capacity to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic has been remarkable. Scientific expertise has informed Government decisions that the Irish public have supported.

In the coming months, we may be faced with periods of tighter restrictions

Each of us can be proud of how we’ve responded to the crisis. Given the severity of the public health warnings and the pace with which the situation was upon us, it is perhaps not surprising that a rather shocked Government and public were willing to heed the advice of experts and react accordingly.

Epidemiologists, virologists and immunologists have become household names. Scientists are, not without reason, seen as benevolent actors who work for the public good. In the absence of a well-rehearsed policy rulebook for pandemics, political leaders turned to the relevant experts. This has saved lives.

Weighing the positions

As Ireland tentatively moves from the strictest form of lockdown to a series of intermediate phases, scientific advice will be viewed alongside that from economic, social, and political sectors. This is as it should be.

Politicians will look to all of these when making decisions. Public opinion may fracture from the collective resolve seen thus far rendering decisions harder to make.

Within this more complex space, politicians might do well to weight these varied expert positions considering the validity of the perspective and the reliability of claims made. Rather than merely compare the “facts” as presented by various advocates, they might think about their basis. Failure to do this may see policy that reflects the desired rather than the prudent.

If we are to capitalise on a reconceptualised view of science, following Covid-19, we may wish to consider how it’s funded, debated, and how it is taught

Scientists have struggled to assert the reliability of their knowledge on other socio-scientific issues such as climate change or the biodiversity crisis. It must not happen within this pandemic. If we are to avoid this dilution of scientific expertise in our response to Covid-19, I would contend we must make the scientific process more explicit in how we communicate science.

In its most basic form, the scientific process is built on experimentation; scientists collect evidence which may or may not confirm hypotheses. This cautious process does not result in absolute certitude. Rather, it quotes findings with error bars. It generalises with caution. It is open and revisionist.

Embracing uncertainty, questioning reliability and foregrounding the hypothetical, this process gives us varying degrees of confidence in what we might say (I choose those words quite deliberately). We are left not with a dichotomy between fact and fiction but with a spectrum of falsifiable results.

Science and society

We can describe, using quantum mechanics, the whereabouts of electrons in a hydrogen atom with incredible precision. When it comes to understanding the mechanism of the mind, we are less precise.

Science relishes this spectrum of knowing – it provides for countless challenges and opportunities. We can use science to increase our confidence where there is doubt.

Scientists work as a community to come to consensus. When an eminent professor suggests a new idea to tackle Covid-19, colleagues will be supportive but sceptical – let’s see the data! Tentative findings are sent to expert peers in a blind review process that may result in publication.

While occasional paradigm shifts in our way of conceptualising a phenomenon may occur, most of the work is iterative. We make slow and steady progress. What results is considered.

As Ireland moves slowly toward a place of better public health, the role of scientists will continue to be important

As we journey through this Covid-19 pandemic, we eagerly await news of potential vaccines or factors, such as masks or phone apps, that may reduce the likelihood of contracting the illness. In the coming months, we may be faced with periods of tighter restrictions.

Guiding the public and political decision makers through the scientific processes that inform these will, I hope, help provide context and a sense of their relative trustworthiness. It may also help us distinguish a new hypothesis from peer-reviewed, experimentally verified, work.

I am optimistic that a more fruitful relationship between science and society may emerge from this pandemic. Might it shift perceptions of science from an all-knowing group in white coats to reliable, but not infallible, human enterprise? Might it also better connect with a public that has held science at a distance? If we are to capitalise on a reconceptualised view of science, following Covid-19, we may wish to consider how it’s funded, debated, and how it is taught.

The majority of scientific voices contributing to Ireland’s efforts to limit the effects of Covid-19, are from our universities and institutes of technology. Still reeling from a decade of austerity, these institutes face grave financial peril in the coming years as private sources of income seem less reliable.

Habits of mind

As we look toward a post-virus recovery, a new government may see the promise that funding science and higher education brings. It may be brave enough to decouple these from short-term economic impacts. Who knows what’s coming down the track for Ireland in the coming decades. Our current crisis shows the importance of a diversity of expertise to inform decision making and offer hope.

Covid-19 has seen a more sophisticated interplay between the media and scientists. Claims are interrogated and scientific opinion pieces are becoming more common. We need this to continue, and grow, if science is to move beyond a cold presentation of facts when we consider our solutions to climate change, plastic pollution, vaccines, etc.

The complexity of each of these problems requires a nuanced, complex, solution where science plays a more engaged role.

Changes to the ways in which science is taught in schools and university that promote students “doing science” as opposed to rote-learning facts are to be welcomed and encouraged.

While these present challenges, they offer a research-informed way in which young citizens will not just come to understand science, but will also develop the scientific habits of mind required to learn how it works, and thus see its place and value within society.

As Ireland moves slowly toward a place of better public health, the role of scientists will continue to be important. Care must be given to ensure these expert voices continue to carry weight for those who make decisions. While science should not dominate, deviation from the slow and steady path to recovery it offers should not be taken lightly.

Scientists should establish trust in their expertise by illustrating the process that underpins it. Ultimately, the lessons we learn from this may benefit us long after Covid-19.

Dr Shane Bergin is a physicist based at University College Dublin School of Education

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