Many young scientists see the scientific enterprise in America as deeply flawed, one that has never lived up to their expectations. Previously, times of national crisis have sparked huge changes to the scientific community, most notably during WWII. The current COVID-19 pandemic heralds a new age of American science once again.
The immediate and global-scale threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has captured the attention of American scientists on a scale that has never been seen before. Scientists from industry, government and academia all came together in Operation Warp Speed to develop safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in a record time. The fruits of this massive collaborative effort so far — three safe and effective mRNA vaccines — are truly remarkable, while taking less than a year from start to finish. This moment is reminiscent of the dramatic shifts in American science that occurred during WWII, and similarly brings the possibility for dramatic and long-overdue change.
While many possible directions for American science lie ahead, it is clear that there will be no return to the status quo. The pandemic has exposed both the benefits science can provide and the current problems it faces from within. Not a single laboratory studied SARS-CoV-2 in fall 2019. Now, in mere months, COVID-19 has become one of the most well-studied diseases in human history and successful vaccines are entering arms across the world.
Despite this incredible shift, growing inequalities that threaten the future of American science have worsened due to COVID-19. With schools closed, female scientists were more likely to sacrifice their research efforts to care for their children. Underrepresented, minority scientists were more likely to have lost loved ones and are more at risk from existing healthcare disparities. Leadership at all levels, from university department heads to newly elected officials including President Biden, will need to work together to carry forward the good and root out the bad that the pandemic has unmasked in American science. Bold action will be needed to make lasting change, but President Biden has signaled that he is up for the challenge.
Calling back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s letter to his science advisor during WWII, President Biden wrote to his science advisor in January, just one year after the first coronavirus case was detected in the United States. In his letter, Biden poses five questions relating to public health, climate change, national security, equity and the state of American science to his science advisor, Eric Lander of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute. The letter marks another inflection point in the history of American science. How will the federal government and scientists across academia, industry and government respond to the pandemic and what will be the result for science in the coming decades?
The list of desperately needed changes to American science is long. Warped incentives in science, specifically the drive to quickly publish no matter the cost, has caused unprecedented damage during the pandemic. Here at Yale, a distinguished cancer epidemiologist left his scholarly lane to support the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, while discounting evidence that refuted his claims about its effectiveness.
The “leaky pipeline” problem still exists, leading to disproportionately low numbers of women entering academia. This problem persists despite the fact the number of women entering science at the bachelor degree level actually surpasses men. The scientific community does not currently reflect the diversity in the United States and demographic trends will only worsen this gap if left unaddressed. Not only will the problem of recruitment need to be addressed — STEM has a diversity retention problem that will need to be fixed at the same time.
Even though Congress largely ignored former President Trump’s budget proposals that called for massive cuts to federal research funding, research spending has still stagnated. On top of all this, Congress has no formal way to debate science and technology holistically. Neither the House nor Senate has a single committee that can oversee the entirety of federal research activities. Any one of these issues would be cause for concern, yet we must face them all at once.
Despite its current bleak state, American science has met the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic with remarkable success. The disruptive nature of the pandemic has thrust a new era of American science into view by highlighting both its strengths and weaknesses. Biden and Lander now have the opportunity to champion necessary structural changes to the American scientific enterprise. This devastating pandemic demands equally disruptive and dramatic efforts to reignite the furnace of American science, expediting advancements that will benefit Americans and the world in the decades to come.
PATRICK BUCKLEY and KRISTEN RAMSEY are second-year Ph.D. students in the Microbial Pathogenesis department and members of Yale Student Science Diplomats, a student organization centered on science policy. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.