Remember the pandemic? Barely. Economist Impact, a policy research team within The Economist Group, supported by The Lancetfrom publisher Elsevier, launched last week Confidence in research—a report exploring scientists’ attitudes towards the practice and communication of science during the pandemic. Based on a survey of more than 3,000 researchers worldwide, Economist Impact has identified important actions that should be considered if mistakes are not to be repeated in future health emergencies.
What were the main conclusions? Inequalities in access to resources and funding for scientists have worsened, particularly for early-career researchers, women, and those working in low-income settings. Misinformation was a growing concern. Scientists have undertaken more activities aimed at the public, disseminating and interpreting new research results and countering false or misleading information. Although scientists recognized that there was a welcome increase in public attention to science, this awareness was not always accompanied by greater understanding. The researchers paid more attention to communicating the uncertainties and limitations of their work. Their entry into the public sphere has raised concerns about the oversimplification and politicization of research. One of the challenges has been the avalanche of online abuse directed at scientists. Researchers asked for more support to improve their communication skills when speaking to the public and decision makers. Economist Impact made several proposals. Campaigns against misinformation. Investments to build public confidence in science. Commission more research on science communication. Improved research culture among the media. More vigorous efforts to explain new research findings to a public audience. Promote more transnational partnerships and make room for non-English speakers to reduce inequalities. And prepare scientists for more public-facing roles – reducing administrative burdens, providing mentorship to early career researchers, communications training, hiring science communicators and providing support to deal with online abuse.
I would add five additional challenges. First, tackling the problem of the rapidity. Demand for instant publication of new research has been intense during the COVID-19 pandemic. So intense that peer review was routinely bypassed with an explosion of preprints. Although understandable and probably necessary, I have my doubts. To The Lancet we see daily the value that peer review brings to improving the science we publish. Omitting peer review has a cost. Second, solve the problem of volume. The tidal wave of research papers unleashed by COVID-19 may have reflected science’s remarkable agility to pivot during a crisis, but the pandemic has also revealed that science today has a challenge to healing. We have not developed effective ways to select, organize and present new research in a way that optimizes understanding and application. Third, deal with the problem of voice. These scientists with easy access to communication channels were quickly and powerfully heard in the cacophony of an evolving global health crisis. But these were not the voices of the mightiest that the world always needed to hear. As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerged in Brazil, South Africa, and India, for example, scientists and clinicians in those countries deserved greater attention, attention they rarely received. Fourth, the question of meaning. Just because the research was published quickly does not mean that science policy makers have read it and responded to it appropriately or in a timely manner. There have been many examples during the pandemic of failures in science policy-making, despite the availability of high-quality research. If science does not have effective institutional means to interpret new findings, mistakes will be made. And finally, dealing with Mistake. Under great pressure, miscalculations will be inevitable. The public and politicians should not assume the worst of science or scientists if unintentional mistakes are made. What matters is that these errors are identified and corrected as quickly as possible. I hope the Confidence in research initiative provokes actions in a wide range of scientific institutions. But I am pessimistic. There is currently extraordinary complacency among many scientific bodies about the lessons of COVID-19. The attitude seems to be, “well, we’ve developed effective vaccines in record time, haven’t we, so what are we complaining about?” It’s an attitude that means we remain ill-prepared for future health emergencies.