I HAVE ALWAYS loved mystery stories. Maybe that explains my fascination with science, which is humanity’s attempt to understand the longest-running mystery we know: the origin and function of the natural world and our place in it. As a child, I had only an intuitive sense of science as an approach to understanding things, such as why people get cancer or how blind spiders came to populate the lava tubes I explored on weekend outings in my hometown in Hawaii.
When I made my way to graduate school, I discovered Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, published in 1962. It made a compelling case for “paradigm shifts”, in which the accumulation of challenges to a supposed truth eventually overturns the accepted understanding of it. This seemed to explain the observation that scientific ideas and practice often bumble along for a long time but then experience a rapid and substantial change that disrupts the regular way of working.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of paradigm shifts with the emergence of covid-19. Like many other aspects of life these days, science and its practice seem to be undergoing rapid and perhaps permanent changes. Three ways that the pandemic is shaking up the scientific status quo include public respect for science, how discoveries are communicated and the norms of collaboration. After covid-19, science will never be the same—and this will be for the better.
The respect accorded to science is changing fundamentally because of the pandemic. The value of investing in science for both immediate discoveries and future preparedness has come into sharp relief. More students contemplating their careers may see scientific research as an exciting and rewarding profession.
The hunger to understand the biology of coronaviruses, including their evolution, passage through animal hosts and correspondence between genetics and disease, highlights the importance of a fact-based understanding of the world. If ignorance and fear can be supplanted by trust in scientists and the scientific method, we could see a long-term change in public attitudes—and public investment.
The communication and dissemination of science is also undergoing rapid change. The most apparent area is in research publications. An adviser once told me that if science is not published, it doesn’t exist. His point was that its practice depends on results entering the public domain for discussion, debate and replication by other scientists. This process enables discoveries that lead to new understanding and, in turn, to more discoveries.
But the publication process is shifting. The desire to get research out and freely available has motivated biologists to adopt “preprints” as an accepted form of publication. Findings are less likely to be kept under wraps for months, awaiting peer review in often pay-walled journals. Over late-night drinks at a conference several years ago, an editor at a prominent journal lamented this trend, wondering how long she might have her job. After a slow start, the culture around preprints has shifted quickly: scientists scramble for new information on the pandemic and post their work immediately. There are more than 100 new papers on covid-19 posted on the main preprint servers such as bioRxiv and medRxiv every day.
This begets challenges. Preprints are not peer-reviewed or formally evaluated for scientific quality. Journalists sometimes treat the findings as wholly true, which can cloud public understanding. Most biologists believe it is a good development, provided that peer-review remains the standard for journals. (Though even they sometimes get it badly wrong, as happened recently with articles on hydroxychloroquine that used iffy data.) And preprints are quickly dissected on social media, enabling scientists to quickly replicate and build on findings. The rapid and open access to research will improve the communication of science and the involvement of non-scientists in the enterprise.
The changes in respectability and communication point to a third shift: collaboration. Scientists are suddenly in the spotlight in ways not seen in decades. They are working across disciplines, co-operating to make discoveries and applying novel technologies to a degree reminiscent of the second world war. For example, in March my colleagues and I at the Innovative Genomics Institute established a large consortium of academic and corporate scientists to create a clinical testing lab and to fast-track research on the pandemic.
This kind of multi-institutional group usually takes months if not years to build. But clearly it can happen much faster, to everyone’s benefit, if barriers such as intellectual property are removed and there is a sense of shared urgency to solve critical global issues.
Extensive and open collaboration is accelerating the scientific process. A team of Chinese and Australian researchers published the first genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in January, enabling researchers worldwide to access the genetic map for free. An open database of nearly 4,000 novel coronavirus sequences now charts mutations and virus transmission, with new sequences added every day from researchers across the globe. Work towards a much-needed vaccine would not be possible without this research.
More than 150 therapeutic or vaccine candidates are now in clinical trials and hundreds more are in pre-clinical development. This breakneck pace of drug development is unprecedented and made possible because of the collaboration among companies, hospital clinicians and academic and government scientists. For example, a widely-publicised vaccine candidate at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute in Britain was recently tested in monkeys by National Institutes of Health researchers in Montana. Scientists on the project are already working with drug companies to mass-produce the vaccine, a huge challenge that must begin before the product has even been shown to work.
Collaboration like this needs to be nurtured, not only among academics and companies but across borders. Yet there is a risk that politics will interfere with scientific progress. With government co-operation at an all-time low and America pulling funding and membership from the World Health Organisation, we must rely on a renewed push for “science diplomacy.” By forging links themselves, researchers can bypass politics to serve as a trusted early-warning system for global health, and champion education and evidence-based decisions with greater public buy-in and lower political friction.
When we eventually have a vaccine, and the pandemic shifts from a crisis, to a challenge, to a mere memory, the world will be a different place. Long-standing challenges to the scientific enterprise are building towards a Kuhnian paradigm shift that will turn the practice of scientific research on its head. We are being pushed by circumstances to conduct research at a speed, scale and scope that I’d only ever seen in books and films. We’re releasing data as soon as we have it, we’re collaborating across disciplines and time zones, and the public is counting on us. A new era of science is emerging. It can’t arrive soon enough.
Jennifer Doudna is a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. She has made several fundamental discoveries, including describing in 2012 the ability to edit genomes via the CRISPR-Cas9 protein with collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier.