The Coronavirus Pandemic: Delivering Science in a Crisis

Lessons from science’s role in the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster can guide research during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy human toll all over the world; at this writing, roughly 400,000 people have died, and more than 7 million have been infected. Evidence suggests that the coronavirus is disproportionately affecting racial and ethnic minorities in the United States and other countries, exposing longstanding economic disparities and inequities in health care. The United States is experiencing extreme unemployment. Economies have been shut down and supply chains disrupted. Society is depending on science to deliver us from this health, social, and economic crisis.

Society is depending on science to deliver us from this health, social, and economic crisis.

An obvious role for science is to develop novel vaccines and effective therapies, and in that pursuit biomedical research has retooled diverse laboratories toward this singular problem. But there is a broader array of answers we need from science to see our way forward—for example, how to mitigate the spread of the virus, prevent a recurrence, and design a more resilient future for humanity. To effectively provide these answers, we must recognize that science in crisis is special. Here I offer a framework for providing answers based on experience developed with my colleague Gary Machlis during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. (I was director of the US Geological Survey at the time; Machlis was science advisor to the director of the National Park Service.) At the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, we are now embracing this framework to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Actionable Science to Inform Rapid Decision Making

In the early days of the crisis, national leaders needed to make informed decisions on short notice. They needed actionable science, defined as science delivered to a decision-maker that is timely; understood by the nonscientist; provided in the context of the decision at hand; of the highest standards that timeliness allows; and meaningful—in terms of safety, economics, health, welfare, security, or any other values that matter to society. At the National Academies, our standing committee on emerging infectious diseases has provided actionable science to the US government on such topics such as the effectiveness of homemade face masks, the costs and benefits of social distancing, crisis standards of care, the seasonality of the virus, and the possibility of bioaerosol spread.

And because the pandemic has an immediate impact on almost all aspects of daily life, we recently partnered with the National Science Foundation to launch a network that will bring the full range of scientific expertise across the social, natural, and biomedical sciences to provide actionable science on issues such as how to reopen schools, the best practices for distance teaching and learning, and how to strengthen mental health services during this crisis. The network is poised to address these and myriad other questions that are being raised by mayors, governors, local representatives, and other leaders.

Strategic Science to Guide Long-Term Planning

Although much focus in the early days of a crisis is by necessity on actionable science, it is also important to plan for the longer term. Whereas it took mere weeks for the coronavirus to upend almost every sector of society, it is looking increasingly likely that a full recovery could take years. For the foreseeable future, policy-makers and communities will struggle to make decisions now that position them well for an uncertain future: Will there be a vaccine? Even if there is, will COVID-19 be with us for the long term, like the seasonal flu or the measles? For this type of longer-term planning, strategic science involves interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals in scenario planning to consider a range of futures, along with estimates of their uncertainties, and their possible chains of consequences for health, the environment, the economy, and infrastructure. The scenarios allow decision-makers to invest resources to prevent a long-term legacy of problems that cascade, in this case, from the virus, to people’s health, to society, to national economies, and even to global political stability.

For the foreseeable future, policy-makers and communities will struggle to make decisions now that position them well for an uncertain future.

For example, in the near term, researchers could examine the possible impacts of a new round of infections on migrant farm workers, a vulnerable population with housing incompatible with self-quarantine and concerns about immigration status that might interfere with seeking timely medical attention. An epidemic in this population could have ramifications far beyond themselves and their immediate families, potentially disrupting food supplies and local, regional, and even the national economy. How could such a scenario be prevented or mitigated? Or as the pandemic wears on, strategic science could be used to weigh a range of scenarios that could ensure that the capacity of research universities—major stimulators of innovation, ingenuity, and economic growth—is maintained in an era of severe financial challenges and fiscal constraints.

The National Academies as an organization is well positioned to provide strategic science, and we are launching an initiative in this area. We have the capacity to convene experts across the full range of natural, life, environmental and social sciences, engineering, and medicine, and those experts have reach-back to more colleagues to provide additional expertise as scenarios develop. The users of these scenarios could be federal agencies; national, state, and local governments; institutions; and even private industry.

Irreplaceable Science to Understand What Works

Although no one would wish a pandemic on a society, or a major oil spill for that matter, crises provide an opportunity to conduct irreplaceable science. This is a special type of research that takes advantage of the unusual conditions existing during a crisis; requires rapid response by funders and researchers; is constrained by a requirement to not interfere with response efforts or actionable science; and poses challenges for scientific reproducibility. The results might, or might not, be directly relevant to the solutions to the crisis at hand.

For example, no scientist would be able to devise an experiment in which a large fraction of the global population is asked to socially distance for months, but now that it has happened, it is important to understand the impacts on mental health, family relationships, and the social fabric of society. Such knowledge will be valuable in understanding how best to respond to a second wave of COVID-19 or another pandemic. In another example, ocean scientists have been hoping to organize a “quiet day” for the oceans—a 24-hour period of relative silence from the cultural noise of human disturbance. Instead, thanks to the pandemic, they got months of relative quiet to observe the impact on marine life of turning down the noise level in the oceans. Although most irreplaceable science will be done by researchers at universities and other labs, I see a role for the National Academies in helping to identify important opportunities for irreplaceable science and in integrating the results where appropriate into actionable and strategic science.

I see a role for the National Academies in helping to identify important opportunities for irreplaceable science and in integrating the results where appropriate into actionable and strategic science.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the classic example of a problem that we will not solve anywhere until we solve it everywhere. This scientific framework including actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science (and with that I include engineering and medicine) will bring much-needed focus and cohesion to public- and private-sector research efforts related to the pandemic, and will encourage collaboration and cooperation in the United States and around the world. We’ve already seen many examples of scientists teaming up across borders in new ways to work on developing vaccines and treatments. During an era of growing nationalization, researchers must resist that constriction and continue to share knowledge so that lessons learned in one country can inform response and recovery in other nations.

Our national and global research enterprise houses the expertise to conquer the pandemic and at the same time help shape a stronger, better prepared nation and world. As we fight this worldwide emergency, employing actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science can help society recover from this crisis and also emerge better positioned to respond to inevitable future challenges for many generations to come.

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Cite this Article

McNutt, Marcia. “The Coronavirus Pandemic: Delivering Science in a Crisis.” Issues in Science and Technology (June 16, 2020).