At a moment when the twists and turns of a modern pandemic have created some doubt in science, we think it’s essential to share why science is so critically important. COVID-19 has reminded higher education that communicating effectively is crucial, but it should also reinforce the need for science and policy to be a part of our public discourse. Scientists and policy experts need to not only work together, but also address public health concerns surrounding viruses and vaccines.
Academia has a unique responsibility to educate and also empower students and communities to understand the links and interdependencies between various disciplines. Public scholarship, or academics explaining to the public the importance of their subject field, can help experts connect beyond the campus gates. But public scholarship will require public officials and the general public to respect research, especially within scientific fields during a pandemic.
No doubt, this is a difficult bridge to build as outreach and translation of scholarship for public consumption is not always effectively communicated and many scientists tend to be skittish of the media. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “A recent survey of more than 500 U.S. academic scientists and engineers found that — while the vast majority believe they can advance professionally by interacting with the news media — most are wary of being interviewed by a reporter.”
Recently, there has been a surprising and seemingly politically driven distrust in science. This is particularly concerning as we wrestle with a pandemic. Individuals reluctant to understand how science works or who deny the data science generates, are often unwilling to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or wear face masks. For some, this reluctance in appreciating the workings of science might stem from an adherence to faith. For instance, they may deny that the Earth is not the center of the universe, or deny the facts of evolution.
Doubting these particular facts of science does not usually threaten human physical health. Over the past five or so years, we’ve seen a surging denial of the basic science that helps us better understand the complex nature of a viral pandemic and development of a successful vaccine. While our scientific knowledge is clearly at an all-time high, Laolu Fayanju, M.D, stated that we are now “stymied by the forces of misinformation that undermine the true knowledge that is out there.”
How, then, do we get that true knowledge?
Scientists are too often unprepared to help the public understand their disciplines or interpret the science behind the headlines. And sometimes, even with clarity, their words and recommendations are misconstrued or purposefully twisted for political points. During a pandemic this can be deadly.
Where Have We Come Up Short?
Individual thinking and opinion are derived from genetics, home and family life and education. It’s only the latter that can, when done right, assure a neutral forum to test ideas and hypotheses. How can we help students, developing minds, learn to seriously weigh information and data, measure all sides of a debate, and carefully consider the validity and source of those data and ideas? Some media may bend truth, exaggerate fact, or manipulate data.
Even elementary and secondary education in some states is becoming politicized with some members of state legislatures taking on the role of “knowing best” what should and should not be taught. That leaves our high school graduates with a conundrum of deciphering “knowledge” that could be tainted through a bias. This is an issue that permeates our politics.
At its best, higher education is designed to help our students learn to question, seek and analyze data, and challenge themselves to rethink what does not make sense. Higher education – when done right – does not fear tough questions, open debates, or the controversy of unpopular concepts or opinions. These are the hallmarks of what an open and free society should strive for particularly during uncertain times.
Whether teaching the facts of science and how they might guide our very existence in light of pandemics or climate change, or debating the politics of the past, present and future, or reevaluating pivotal moments of history, higher education represents the best chance to ensure a citizenry that has independent thinkers, able to critically analyze data, and thus make sound decisions for our collective future.
The current pandemic may or may not wind down anytime soon. COVID-19 or some other virus will continue to produce new strains that may or may not impact human health. Science tells us – and historically has told us – that this will not be the last pandemic, that climate change induced by our own actions is real, and that we must find a path to long term sustainability. This is how and why public scholarship, especially coming from academia, can be impactful for students and the public.
Through public scholarship then, academics can and should inform Americans about the importance of science-generated data in understanding relevant emergencies, especially in essential partnerships with policy officials. The key will be for scientific scholars to work with public agencies, politicians and the media to inform the public. Academia can be the space that maintains best practices and retains and shares lessons learned during a pandemic.