Health and Healthcare Systems

Why we turn to scientists in times of crisis

A scientist works in the lab at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), May 13, 2020. Picture taken May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Russell Cheyne - RC2EOG9CTZFH

Image: REUTERS/Russell Cheyne - RC2EOG9CTZFH

Enass Abo-Hamed MBE
Chief Executive Officer, H2GO Power Ltd.
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  • Politicians and the public look to scientists for information and reassurance during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • The scientific method has remained constant, but scientists have more visibility
  • Public interest and trust in science fluctuates, but is highest in times of crisis

As the virus continues to ravage the globe, we all stand in awe of how – in a flash – the life we knew, and with it, our habits and behaviours, has turned upside down.

Through all the mayhem, key questions have come to the fore. How will the pandemic reshape the globe? How will we reach the light at the end of the tunnel? And who will get us there? The answer is unequivocal: science will. Maybe not only, but chiefly.

Instead of political unity between countries on how best to respond to the crisis, we see a plethora of strategies, studies, and confusing political protocols. But one thing nations do agree on, is that, for the world to go back to “normal”, we need a vaccine. Once the vaccine leaves the factories for distribution, and whole populations are vaccinated, we can all leave home back to normal life, but until then we are impatiently waiting for a saviour in a lockdown.

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Scientists will develop more efficient testing mechanisms. Scientists will find ways to predict which members of a population are most at risk and need shielding. Scientists will create antiviral libraries and antibody scale-ups. And of course, they will be the ones to create the vaccines. Scientists have become – for this moment in time – humanity’s hope.

Where were the scientists before COVID-19?

By now, we’re all used to seeing scientists and medical professionals on the television – often rolled out by politicians to deliver key updates and advice to the public during the pandemic. When the top leader stumbles, they turn to the scientist to reassure us. But where were the scientists before?

We were working in our research environments, just as we always have. The level of visibility may have changed since the start of the pandemic, but our approach hasn’t. Scientists have been exercising the same thought and action processes of troubleshooting, hunting for facts and evidence and problem solving. Nothing in the DNA of the scientific method has changed; but our circumstances have.

As Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences recently remarked: “People realize, when the chips are down and everything is on the line and you can be the next person in the hospital bed, it’s the experts that you want to listen to and the experts you wish you had listened to all along.

Science and the survival curve

Our human behaviour can be illustrated as a sinusoidal curve for survival. When things are working well in our lives (top of the curve), we ignore the science. We don’t necessary want to listen to what is wrong in a process or be confronted with facts and evidence that shows us where we can go wrong. The majority of us will not seek information at that point, but confirmation.

When at the peak of the survival curve, we take comfort in being there and we yearn for more, more comfort, more economic successes, less fact-checking and faster processes and financial returns. We will follow whoever is going to promise us the top of the curve comfort.

However, when things move to the bottom of the curve or are on the way down, we are desperate for the results and the solutions that are backed by evidence and can be properly corrected. When political and business leaders fail to show us the way, we turn to scientists to be our saviours and take us back to the top of the curve.

This behaviour has been repeated throughout history. We have seen it through wars, natural disasters, the climate crises, and certainly now. In the last four years alone, trust in political and business leaders in the United States has dropped, while trust in scientists and medical professionals has climbed steadily.

Image: Pew Research Center

So now that the pandemic has advanced to a peak, where do we go from the bottom of the survival curve? Upwards. The corner will turn, thanks to evidence-based decision making informed by science. Governments and businesses are now betting on the scientists to fix the damage to public health. The scientists on the other hand are reassuring us, that despite the scale of the challenge, it is only a matter of time until they find long term solutions to manage or eradicate COVID19.

Scientists racing the virus for a vaccine in labs across the globe will rebuild the supply chains the virus has shattered and respirate the economy back into life. No wonder, we are at least quite united worldwide around the fact that in science we trust.

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