MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:
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2020 was a year like no other, especially for science. During 2020 alone...
ED YONG: There have been more papers written about COVID-19 than there have been on many other diseases that we've known about for a much longer time, things like polio and Ebola. And that's astonishing.
SOFIA: Ed Yong is a staff writer for The Atlantic. And in a recent piece, he explores the massive shifts the pandemic has caused in scientific research.
YONG: You know, we have only known about this disease for a year or so, and yet it has totally consumed the attention of the world's scientists. Many, many scientists have pivoted from whatever they were previously focused on to study COVID-19.
SOFIA: He says take Jennifer Doudna, for example. She's a 2020 Nobel Prize winner and a pioneer of CRISPR gene-editing technology.
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YONG: And she told me about how in February, she was sitting on a plane, headed to a conference, crammed into a middle seat. And she realized, like, this is crazy. This doesn't feel safe. And this is probably the last time I'm going to travel for a while. Like, she had the sense that her life was about to change. And change it did.
SOFIA: The next month, her university shut down. Her son's school closed. Jennifer and her colleagues realized they wanted to switch focus.
YONG: So they started a testing lab in their own institution to serve the local community because they realized that testing wasn't sufficient. They developed new ways of diagnosing the virus using CRISPR. And this is a clear example, I think, of a scientist move to studying COVID-19 because she saw this massive, pressing societal need for science to rise to the occasion.
SOFIA: But in Ed's view, goodwill pivots, like the one that Doudna made, don't tell the whole story about what changed in 2020.
YONG: Science is not just a march towards the greater good. It's a very human endeavor. And as a human endeavor, it has both good and bad sides. At its best, science is a self-correcting march towards greater knowledge for the betterment of humanity.
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YONG: But at its worst, it is a self-interested pursuit of greater prestige at the cost of truth and rigor. And both sides of science were very much on display this year.
SOFIA: So today on the show, we talk with Ed Yong about some of the ways COVID-19 could change science forever. I'm Maddie Sofia. And this is SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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SOFIA: OK, Ed. So today, we're talking about how the pandemic changed scientific research. Let's start with one of the core foundations of science, publishing data, something that, in my experience, doesn't traditionally happen, you know, very quickly.
YONG: (Laughter) Yeah. So traditionally, the process of publishing is often very slow. It takes a lot of time for scientists to write up their results, for that results to then pass through a gauntlet of peer review. That process can take many months. It is ill-suited to a crisis that is as fast-moving as the COVID pandemic has been.
YONG: But for many years now, biomedical researchers have pushed for innovations that will speed up the process of science. So they have started increasingly using preprint servers, where they can upload early drafts of their papers so that their peers can discuss and build upon those results even before it goes through the peer review gauntlet.
YONG: And it really took off in the middle of the pandemic. Preprints were a major part of how science was disseminated over the course of this year and, I think, for both good and ill. They meant that, as intended, the pace of science was much quicker. But in an environment where the entire world was hungry for more information about this new disease, a lot of very bad preprints were also circulated very quickly. They gained international attention and led to the spreading of misleading information...
YONG: ...That hindered the control of COVID-19 rather than helping.
SOFIA: Right. I mean, some papers that, you know, maybe wouldn't have gotten through peer review - peer review, it's not perfect, but it does weed out some of these papers. And some of those kind of picked up traction in unhelpful ways.
YONG: Yeah. Absolutely. So there were a lot of examples of sloppy research, especially by people who entered into areas that were not their specialty, and instead of forming collaborations with people who had that experience, just kind of overconfidently pulled out a couple of quick papers, which then spread all around the world. Now, I will stress that a lot of traditionally peer-reviewed papers were also severely flawed. So you know, the paper that kickstarted the furor around hydroxychloroquine was a peer-reviewed paper.
A lot of other very bad studies came out in very eminent journals. And I think that this reflects the pressures upon scientists, where in academia, people are not so much rewarded for producing high-quality, rigorous work. They're often rewarded mainly for just publishing a lot of papers in very prestigious journals. And these perverse incentives create a lot of pressure for people to produce quick, piecemeal and sometimes sloppy work. Now, I'm not saying at all that most science is like this. Many people do manage to resist that pull and do a lot of high-caliber research. But the pull exists nonetheless.
YONG: And it becomes especially strong in a pandemic when there is so much at stake and when there is so much attention being paid on this part of science.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the good things, I think, to come out of this for science, for public health generally, is now that we've had this pandemic, I think there's a chance that we will take infectious diseases more seriously. You know, like, maybe people will take the common cold more seriously and not go into work. And maybe we'll finally start really funding research on respiratory viruses. You talked a little bit about this.
YONG: So many people I talked to who study respiratory viruses, things like other coronaviruses that cause colds, you know, adenoviruses - there are plenty of these - they often are ignored. Like, aside from influenza, famously, a lot of these get pushed to the side. And it's hard to get funding to do studies on them because I think there is this sense that, you know, they're just colds. They don't matter that much. But, of course, respiratory viruses are the most likely pathogens to cause pandemics. And some might be much worse than SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. So it does behoove us to study these things more. And many people who already worked on coronaviruses said to me that they used to have to justify their work. You know, the people would ask them, why do you care about this weird, niche group of viruses?
YONG: And I don't think that's anything that anyone is ever going to say again.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah.
YONG: And I think that much should make us think about areas of science that actually are really important that we are not paying enough attention to right now.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. OK. OK. So we've talked a lot about the areas of science that were kind of amped up by the pandemic, which means that, you know, a lot of areas of science were at least temporarily or permanently, in some researchers' cases, halted. So you know, from a research perspective, what have we lost out on?
YONG: Science is largely a zero-sum game. It takes a long time to get new researchers. And there aren't that many to go around already. So when a lot of them move their focus to COVID-19, they're moving that away from other things. And those things include tuberculosis, cancers, other infectious diseases, things that are very much still a problem but have been neglected this year. A lot of clinical research had to be stopped because hospitals were overwhelmed. A lot of basic science couldn't happen because labs were closed down for safety reasons.
YONG: And so what we've gained in terms of understanding and fighting the pandemic has come at a cost of our understanding for all kinds of other health problems, which are very much still problems.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know - and that pivot that cost us some other areas of science, like you mentioned, a lot of that was because, all of a sudden, there was a lot of money from the government and private donors to study it. But those opportunities were not spread out, you know, evenly among those in the scientific community, you know, not even close.
YONG: Science already struggles with huge amounts of sexism and racism. And I think those biases were very, very clear this year. So women in science, on top of all the usual problems and disadvantages that they face in academia, many of them also find it harder to pivot to COVID-19, weren't able to do so as quickly as men did because they were disproportionately saddled with caregiving responsibilities. Along similar lines, a lot of scientists of color had the extra burdens of grief. They were more likely to know people - friends, family, loved ones - who actually died of COVID-19.
And in a year of intense racial reckoning for America, many scientists of color who work in predominantly white institutions were suddenly saddled with the task of helping those institutions work out how to fight racism. These extra burdens meant that women and scientists of color were less likely to find themselves authors on this new wave, this new glut of papers that emerged. And I think that that discrepancy is not just a problem for this year but will have lasting consequences. We know in science that small advantages or disadvantages can easily snowball. And so the cost of having an unproductive year will magnify over future years and affect this cohort of scientists for a long time after the pandemic has started to ebb.
SOFIA: Yeah. Yeah. So, Ed, you wrote that science itself can benefit from this pandemic if we can actually learn from this experience. What do you hope it learns? What do you hope we learn?
YONG: Well, I think that much like society at large, COVID-19 has revealed a lot of structural weaknesses in the scientific endeavor, weaknesses that had long been discussed and were easily apparent but have been widened and exploited by this virus - so things like the inequities in science, the perverse academic incentives that push people towards sloppy work and, I think, also, the tendency to focus on biomedical silver bullets, like drugs and vaccines, and ignore the social side of medicine.
So a disease is not just a matter of an individual fighting against a pathogen. Diseases and epidemics also are the product of history. They're the product of inequities that mount over years and decades. They're the result of things like poor sanitation, poor education, bad policy making, incompetent leaders. These are factors that people talked about a lot in the middle of the 19th century but have sort of been forgotten over time and were clearly manifested this year. And, I think, unless we start thinking about the social side of medicine, the importance of things like inequality, politics, misinformation, we are going to leave ourselves vulnerable to future pandemics.
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YONG: We can't just sit around waiting for science to produce drugs and vaccines. We know enough to intervene socially. And I think that the social sciences have a huge amount to teach us in terms of fighting against new and emerging viruses.
SOFIA: OK, Ed Yong, as usual, we appreciate you. Thank you so much for talking to us.
YONG: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Stay safe.
SOFIA: This episode was produced by Brit Hanson, fact-checked by Ariela Zebede and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.
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