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Week 11 – When Science Just Won’t Do In an Emergency

Hope everyone had a good week. Well, as good as it is to be expected with all of the craziness that has been the coronavirus. The ripple effects the virus is going to have are going to last for some time to come. First and foremost, it is unnerving from a personal perspective. While I believe that most people who get this disease will suffer flu-like symptoms, there will be a group of people who will not be so lucky. I worry about people like my mom who is in a nursing facility and those like her who are more susceptible and those who may be as healthy as a horse but may be unlucky in terms of getting this illness. I’ve had this happen to a friend who almost lost his life due to an unfortunate set of circumstances and it was not even this virus. Sadly, bad things can happen to good people. You cannot predict these things so the best you can do is be as cautious as possible. You also have to use good judgment and try to limit your risks as much as possible. Not saying that will not prevent you or me from getting the virus but you still need to try to take the best steps to reduce your odds. You also cannot stop living life but you have to be smart about decreasing contact as much as possible. We (the collective we) are starting to think more the greater good by cancelling large events, gatherings, etc. which stinks on many levels but again, it is about reducing risks. While it has driven people to think about washing their hands more, touching their face, wiping cell phones, etc., this will not fully reduce the risks because we are human and no one is perfect. These are some of my favorite videos. They are not to pick on the people who are making the statements. Rather, it is to show we are all human and it is sometimes hard to put our advice into practice.

Now I need to get up really high on my soapbox and talk about the frustration of being a scientist, especially when things like the coronavirus hits. One thing you come to understand as a scientist is that most people do not understand science or what you do. As I’ve mentioned before, I know there are times that I am writing this blog and many of your eyes are glazing over even if I am trying to break it down to a more user-friendly form. There is a real phobia with regards to science. It’s not a job such as manufacturing, sales, servers and baristas, to name a few, where there is a tangible product or service. Our field can have very small successes after many failures. This could ultimately lead to some major success or at the end of many years of testing and development, it may result in absolute failure. During this time, unlike people who are making a product or providing a service, you need to find a way to make a living for conducting this work that not many people really understand. We continue to push STEM in schools but do not support it outside of a basic belief that it is important for our kids to go into. How do you “value” something that may or may not work? This is one of the reasons that when the government has budget constraints, one the first things proposed to be cut is science – National Institutes of Health, NASA, CDC. You get the gist. It is easy to cut something with no intrinsic “value.” That is until we really need it. I see this in my area all of the time. It does not make enough money if it works, what we have is good enough and it may take too long are some of the reasons I’ve heard.

Sadly, we have folks who are our public officials who blatantly state that scientists over-hype things or do not know what they are talking about. In the next breath, the same group of folks are saying that scientists need to get moving to develop a test kit and vaccine. They tend to treat science like any other business. Throw a lot of cash at it in an emergency, even though the infrastructure is not strong, and that will make all of the discoveries go faster. This could not be further from the truth. Not only will that process hinder discoveries, it tends to breed false promises. I was reading that many companies are being recruited to create a new vaccine for the virus. Some of these companies that have been selected have not even made a single vaccine approved for use in humans. Why would they be able to do it now? Science takes time and typically needs to understand a lot of the background before it can dive into the solution. Providing a consistent investment instead of spending like a drunken sailor at a time of crisis would alleviate these issues. It may not bring immediate “value,” but in the long run, it may pay dividends.

This backwards mentality needs to change and that starts with you! We need to value science in the times where we are not dealing with a pandemic so that solutions will be more readily at hand when bad things happen. This is not just for the coronavirus but areas like medical devices and diagnostic kits that may not bring immediate “value” to the majority of the public, but are able to help specific areas where they are needed.

Please stay safe and we’ll get back to business next week.


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