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About the Authors

Victoria Schneider is a Ph.D. candidate at Rockefeller University, working under the mentorship of both Dr. Kirk Deitsch and Dr. Howard Hang to study the effects of metabolism on antigenic gene expression in malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. She is an alumnus of the AAAS’ Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop in 2018. She serves as a co-chair of Science & Education Policy Association (SEPA), a student-run organization in New York City founded at the Tri-Institute—Weill Cornell Medicine, The Rockefeller University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—aiming to facilitate the interaction between scientists and the world of science policy.

Benjamin Fait is a Ph.D. candidate at the Rockefeller University in the laboratory of Nathaniel Heintz, where he studies the connectivity of corticospinal circuits. Prior to Rockefeller, he was a Fulbright Researcher at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain. He received his undergraduate degree at Yale University, where he served as a fellow at Women's Health Research at Yale (WHRY).

Irene Duba is a Ph.D. candidate at the Rockefeller University, where she studies chromatin biology. She is part of the leadership team of SEPA.

Frances Marks is a Ph.D. candidate at Weill Cornell Graduate School and studies Mycobacterium tuberculosis pathogenesis in the laboratory of Dr. Sabine Ehrt. She is a member of SEPA.

Alex Payne is a Ph.D. student studying how proteins move and perform their functions using Cryo-EM and molecular dynamics. He has had a lifelong interest in science communication and is passionate about the responsibility that the scientific community has to share our discoveries and use them for the common good.

Perspective

Building the Base: Why a More Diverse, Communication-Savvy Scientific Workforce is the Key to Addressing Future Catastrophes

While governments, scientists, and public health officials around the world mobilized rapidly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were unprepared for the unprecedented spread of misinformation and distrust that followed. With misinformation as transmissible as the SARS-CoV-2 virus, this “infodemic” is a threat to the infrastructure of public health and the well-being of the global population. In Iran, 700 people died after being led to believe that drinking methanol would cure COVID-19.1 In Europe, nearly one hundred 5G telephone towers were set on fire following the spread of conspiracy theories that suggested they were the true source of the virus.2 Across the United States, citizens protested against scientifically proven mitigation efforts such as mask-wearing and country-wide restrictions on in-person business.3 All the while, three-quarters of people polled worldwide say they trust scientists to do what is right for the public.4 The disconnect between the public’s trust of scientists and its disregard for scientific advice is a paradox which must be addressed in order to better prepare for future crises.

One plausible explanation for this disconnect arises not from a lack of scientific understanding but rather political incentives to undermine that expertise. In the United States, the Trump administration actively undercut the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and moved to sever ties with the World Health Organization as part of a coordinated series of actions disassembling government science.5 His administration similarly dismantled institutions dedicated to the study of the climate and environment and formally withdrawn from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.6 This phenomenon has gone global: far-right parties which hold roughly a quarter of seats in the European Parliament are embracing climate denial.7 Additionally, in India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is increasingly interfering in academic affairs.8 While centralized institutions have an important role in constructing a cohesive message to global publics, they are vulnerable to bad-faith political actors undermining them in times of greatest need.

As early-career scientists, we are in a unique position to critically examine the future of our profession. In a world where the public trusts scientists yet disregards the advice of their institutions, we believe the messaging of evidence-based policy must flow through experts trusted within their own communities. Greater decentralization of scientific messaging would hedge against the increasing fragility of long-established institutions. Achieving this would require a serious long-term commitment to making the scientific workforce more representative of the world at large, as people are more likely to be exposed to, listen to, and trust voices from within their own communities.9

Local engagement has proven fruitful in fighting public distrust and the spread of misinformation in different contexts. In a future where community-based science communication is the norm and scientists’ relationship with the public is already established, efforts to address crises could be mobilized more efficiently and less extemporaneously, leading to faster and more effective responses. For instance, to bring the Ebola epidemic under control in 2014, the United Nations created its first emergency health mission, United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response. The program collaborated with local governments, regional organizations, and NGOs and funded over 50 community-based projects across Guinea and Sierra Leone.10 Community-based scientific communication was key in these efforts, as local leaders relayed important information on transmission mitigation and hygiene practices, while also collaborating with farmers to avoid a collapse of the food system during quarantines.11

The efforts to combat climate change is an area where science diplomacy has the potential to make an impact from the global to the local levels. In the United States, the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is one of many programs12 dedicated to connecting climate experts with individual communities in order to understand their climate risks and formulate locally tailored response plans.13 In South Asia, the Kabul River Basin, situated between Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world, as both countries struggle for transboundary water security. A collaborative workshop among scientific and community leaders from these two countries established the Transboundary Water In-cooperation Network (TWIN) to connect transboundary water groups globally.14 Their organizational mission highlights the importance of local involvement to ensure diplomatic processes around water security take into consideration the needs of affected citizens.15 These examples demonstrate the power of interfacing directly at the community level for science-based solutions to global problems. In this way, institutions can maximize their effectiveness by distancing the message from perceived partisan affiliations and institutions, thus facilitating greater trust in science at the local level. Developing a globally representative scientific workforce embedded in individual communities would build a science diplomacy infrastructure that is resilient and flexible, primed to respond to crises as they arise.

But this infrastructure will only be achieved if those scientists who engage in community outreach and education are rewarded and supported. Teaching a transformative course on understanding science for non-STEM majors should be as valued in the tenure process as a faculty member publishing in the highest-impact journals. For example, in 2016, the Mayo Clinic added “digital and social media scholarship” to their requirements for academic advancement, providing a model for incentivizing science communication in academia.16 Representation in science is presently treated primarily as a matter of equity, and the ability to communicate effectively with the public as a secondary concern. If the scientific community is to be prepared for the crises of the future, both of these facets of the global scientific workforce must be treated as essential to serving the public good.

One key purpose of historically centralized, government-based sources of scientific information has been the ability to disseminate a cohesive and accurate message to the public. While this function remains essential, it is critically vulnerable without strong decentralized efforts. For the global scientific community to be prepared in the event of future crises, their ability – and incentives – to communicate clearly with the public at the local level must be treated as essential to the efficacy of science in serving the greater good.

 

Endnotes

  1. Adam Forrest, “Coronavirus: 700 Dead in Iran After Drinking Toxic Methanol Alcohol to ‘Cure Covid-19’,” Independent, April 28, 2020, www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/coronavirus-iran-deaths-toxic-methanol-alcohol-fake-news-rumours-a9487801.html.
  2. Samanth Subramanian, “The Deep Conspiracy Roots of Europe’s Strange Wave of Cell-Tower Fires,” POLITICO, May 18, 2020, www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/18/deep-conspiracy-roots-europe-wave-cell-tower-fires-264997.
  3. Emily Stewart, “Anti-Maskers Explain Themselves,” Vox, August 7, 2020, www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/7/21357400/anti-mask-protest-rallies-donald-trump-covid-19.
  4. Pew Research Center, “Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Publics,” (September 2020), www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/09/29/science-and-scientists-held-in-high-esteem-across-global-publics.
  5. Charles Piller, “The Inside Story of How Trump’s COVID-19 Coordinator Undermined the World’s Top Health Agency,” Science, October 14, 2020, www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/10/inside-story-how-trumps-covid-19-coordinator-undermined-cdc; Martha Kinsella et al., “Trump Administration Abuses Thwart US Pandemic Response,” Brennan Center for Justice, August 6, 2020, www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/trump-administration-abuses-thwart-us-pandemic-response; Donald G. McNeil Jr. and Andrew Jacobs, “Blaming China for Pandemic, Trump Says U.S. Will Leave the W.H.O.,” New York Times, May 29, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/health/virus-who.html.
  6. Jeff Tollefson, “How Trump Damaged Science — And Why It Could Take Decades to Recover,” Nature 586 (2020): 190-194; Rebecca Hersher, “U.S. Officially Leaving Paris Climate Agreement,” National Public Radio, November 3, 2020, www.npr.org/2020/11/03/930312701/u-s-officially-leaving-paris-climate-agreement   
  7. Beth Gardiner, “For Europe’s Far-Right Parties, Climate is a New Battleground,” Yale Environment 360, October 29, 2019, https://e360.yale.edu/features/for-europes-far-right-parties-climate-is-a-new-battleground.
  8. Pitamber Kaushik, “India: Modi’s War on Science,” Science in Society, EuroScientist, July 16, 2020, www.euroscientist.com/india-modis-war-on-science; Apoorva Mandavilli, “India’s Government Is Becoming Increasingly Antiscience,” Scientific American, February 3, 2016, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/india-s-government-is-becoming-increasingly-antiscience
  9. Harry Farmer, Ryan McKay, and Manos Tsakris, “Trust in Me: Trustworthy Others Are Seen as More Physically Similar to the Self,” Psychological Science 25, no. 1 (2014): 290–92; Fabian Pfortmüller, “The Magic of Communities: Scaling Trust Through the Community Proxy Effect,” Medium, November 8, 2017, https://medium.com/together-institute/the-magic-of-communities-scaling-trust-through-the-community-proxy-effect-c27515081454; Sandra Susan Smith, “Race and Trust,” Annual Review of Sociology 36, no. 1 (2010): 453–75.
  10. World Peace Foundation, “United Nations Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER): Short Mission Brief,” African Politics, African Peace, accessed October 5, 2020, https://sites.tufts.edu/wpf/files/2017/07/United-Nations-Ebola-Emergency-Response-brief.pdf; World Health Organization, “The Role of WHO within the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response,” (report of the Secretariat, September 2014), www.who.int/csr/resources/publications/ebola/who-unmeer.pdf.
  11. World Health Organization, “Stopping Ebola: It takes Collaboration to Care for a Village,” (September 2015), www.who.int/features/2015/stopping-ebola-in-kambia/en.
  12. “How We Respond,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, accessed December 13, 2020, https://howwerespond.aaas.org.
  13. “About the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Program,” Climate Program Office, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, accessed December 13, 2020,  https://cpo.noaa.gov/Meet-the-Divisions/Climate-and-Societal-Interactions/RISA/About-RISA
  14. Bindu Panikkar et al. “Transboundary Water Governance in the Kabul River Basin: Implementing Environmental and Public Diplomacy Between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Complexity, Governance, & Networks 5, no. 1 (2019): 101–120.
  15. “Empowering Communities to Ensure Clean Water for All,” Transboundary Water In-Cooperation Network, accessed November 20, 2020, https://www.transboundarywater.org/home
  16. Daniel Cabrera et al., “More Than Likes and Tweets: Creating Social Media Portfolios for Academic Promotion and Tenure,” Journal of Graduate Medical Education 9, no. 4 (2017): 421–425.