The Perfect Enemy | Offline: COVID-19—the lessons that science forgot
December 10, 2022
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Remember the pandemic? Barely. Economist Impact, a policy research team within The Economist Group, supported by The Lancet‘s publisher Elsevier, last week launched Confidence in Research—a report exploring attitudes of scientists to the practice and communication of science during the pandemic. Based on a survey of over 3000 researchers worldwide, Economist Impact identified important actions that should be considered if mistakes are not to be repeated during future health emergencies.

What were the key findings? Inequalities in access to resources and funding for scientists worsened, especially for early career researchers, women, and those working in lower-income settings. Misinformation was a growing concern. Scientists took on more public-facing activities, disseminating and interpreting new research findings and countering false or misleading information. Although scientists recognised that there was a welcome increase in public attention to science, that awareness was not always matched by enhanced understanding. Researchers paid more attention to communicating uncertainties and limitations in their work. Their entry into the public sphere raised concerns about the oversimplification and politicisation of research. One challenge has been the avalanche of online abuse directed at scientists. Researchers sought more support to improve their communication skills when engaging with the public and policy makers. Economist Impact made several proposals. Campaigns to counter misinformation. Investments to build public trust in science. Commissioning more research on science communication. Enhanced research literacy among the media. More vigorous efforts to explain new research findings to a public audience. Promoting more cross-country partnerships and making room for non-English speakers to reduce inequities. And preparing scientists for more public-facing roles—reducing administrative burdens, providing mentorship for early career researchers, training in communication, hiring science communicators, and providing support to confront online abuse.

An aerial view of Johannesburg city centre. (Photo by Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

I would add five additional challenges. First, addressing the problem of speed. The demand for instant publication of new research was intense during the COVID-19 pandemic. So intense that peer review was routinely bypassed with an explosion of preprints. While understandable and probably necessary, I have misgivings. At The Lancet we see on a daily basis the value peer review brings to improving the science we publish. Omitting peer review has a cost. Second, solving the problem of volume. The tidal wave of research papers that COVID-19 triggered may have reflected the remarkable agility of science to pivot during a crisis, but the pandemic also revealed that science today has a curation challenge. We have not developed effective means to select, organise, and present new research in a way that optimises understanding and application. Third, managing the problem of voice. Those scientists with ready access to channels of communication were quickly and forcefully heard in the cacophony of an evolving global health crisis. But it was not the voices of the most powerful that the world always needed to hear. As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Brazil, South Africa, and India, for example, scientists and clinicians from those countries deserved greater attention—attention they rarely received. Fourth, the question of meaning. Just because research was published quickly did not mean that science policy makers read and responded to that research appropriately or in a timely manner. There were many examples during the pandemic of failures in science policy making, despite the availability of high-quality research. If science does not have effective institutional means for interpreting new findings, mistakes will be made. And finally, dealing with error. Under severe pressure, miscalculations will be inevitable. The public and politicians should not think the worst of science or scientists if inadvertent errors are made. What matters is that those errors are identified and corrected as quickly as possible. I hope the Confidence in Research initiative provokes actions across a diverse array of scientific institutions. But I am pessimistic. There is presently extraordinary complacency among many scientific bodies about the lessons of COVID-19. The attitude seems to be, “well, we developed effective vaccines in record time, didn’t we, so what is there to complain about?” It is an attitude that means we remain poorly prepared for coming health emergencies.

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