Should science and politics intersect? There is a long-running notion that scientists should “stick to science” and not engage in the political arena, so they don’t risk tarnishing their image as objective non-partisan truth-seekers. However, this viewpoint ignores that science has always been political. Scientific research in the United States is largely funded by the federal government and proposed annual budgets highlight which research areas the president and his administration want to prioritize. Officials also appoint science advisors for their input, issue executive orders about how certain types of research are to be conducted and instruct government scientists on how they communicate their work to the general public.
The enterprise of science - gathering data, analyzing the data, and reporting the results - is not in itself a political activity. On the other hand, deciding what to do with the data is. Government officials will consider or dismiss scientific evidence to varying degrees, and will sometimes spread misinformation themselves. Science is crucial for issues such as climate, the environment, healthcare, pandemic responses, and more, and it needs to play a vital role in our responses to these issues.
Evidence-Based Policy and COVID-19
The intersection of science and politics is laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Government officials are taking scientific evidence into account - or completely ignoring it - in their responses to this crisis.
In the absence of decisive federal action, state governments are addressing the pandemic, with many governors pledging to let science guide decisions about reopening economies and when to lift stay-at-home orders. Some states, however, have already eased restrictions, despite warnings from public health officials that it was too early to do so.
The Trump administration has also been dismissive of science during the pandemic. Funding from the U.S. to the World Health Organization has been cut, along with funding for research studying bat-to-human transmission because of the research group’s supposed ties to China. The White House also shelved the CDC’s guide to safely reopening the country. The pandemic task force prevents government scientists from speaking directly to the public, and officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have pushed a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Trump himself has spread misinformation about the virus and how to treat it. At one point, he hailed the malaria-fighting drug hydroxychloroquine as a “game-changer” and a potential cure for COVID-19. However, there is no evidence that it is an effective treatment. Nonetheless, hyping up hydroxychloroquine led to shortages of the drug, and people took matters into their own hands with disastrous consequences. More recently, Trump floated the possibility of injecting disinfectants into patients’ lungs to treat COVID-19, and he suggested that his science advisors look into that as well as the use of U.V. rays and light as treatments. He later claimed the comments were “sarcastic,” but not before doctors, and companies like Lysol had to rush to warn people not to ingest or inject disinfectants.
Trump’s tendency to ignore science is nothing new, as he and his administration have dismissed or censored science on topics such as climate change and environmental protections in the past. Yet during a pandemic, such a pattern of behavior is a matter of life or death for millions of people, not only in the United States but around the world.
Scientists in Politics
Science has not always been at the forefront of decision-making when it comes to tackling COVID-19. This is a time when it is needed more than ever to inform decisions about containing the spread of the virus, researching it, and developing treatments. Although the American people have to wait until November to either re-elect Trump or remove him from office, scientists can begin participating in politics now. With our training in the scientific method and knowledge of our respective fields, we can make meaningful contributions to how the general public perceives the issues, share our insights with elected officials, and advocate for evidence-based policies. We should do all we can to ensure that science has a seat at every table where decisions are being made.
How can scientists get involved? There are plenty of options available to us, from the local level to the federal government. Some possibilities are:
With our training and knowledge, scientists have a unique ability to guide conversations about important issues and influence policy and law on those issues. Our involvement and advocacy are important: we can ensure that science has a seat at any table where decisions are made, during COVID-19 and beyond for any other challenges we may face.
Mathematical modeling can help us understand the spread of a disease in a given population. Although a modeling approach may shed light on any contagious disease progression in general, I will mainly focus on Covid-19, the pandemic disease with a humongous impact on everything ranging from our personal life to the international economy. In this article, I am NOT trying to fit the models to real-world data; rather I’d like to give you a qualitative flavor about how these disease models, we frequently hear about in the news, work. If you don’t like math, don’t worry; I’ll try to explain everything in as common terms as possible. So, let’s get started!
The framework I’m going to discuss here is known as SIR (Susceptible-Infectious-Removed) model, where a given population is divided into three categories:
Key concepts and results:
1. Basic reproductive number or R0
R0 is a very tricky measure, especially for an ongoing epidemic. In our basic SIR model, R0 is simply the ratio of infection and removal rate multiplied by the initial susceptible population. When R0 is larger than 1, epidemic situation arises in a population. In other words, when disease transmission occurs more frequently than recovery or death, more and more people get infected, and community spread takes the form of an epidemic. Current estimates show that R0 for Covid-19 has a range of 2-5.
The graph below shows a typical population behavior under such situations (R0 = 2.5). Consider a population of 1000 individuals (blue curve), all susceptible initially. One infected person starts to spread the disease (Day 0); the number of infected people (Orange curve) spikes around 45 days or so. As time goes by, more people recover from the disease (green curve); a smaller fraction of people die as well (red curve).
2. Flattening the curve
Larger R0 causes higher disease progression in a population, so what should we do to control it? Since R0 is a combination of infection rate, removal rate, and initial susceptible population (α, β, and S0), infection rate is a feasible parameter to change; in the absence of a vaccine or effective drugs, we can’t change the recovery (or mortality) rate. As we decrease R0 (by reducing α), the rate of infection slows down (see "Flattening the Curve" graph), and the total number of infected cases decreases (compare the green curve, R0 = 1.5 with the red, R0 = 4). Let’s say your local hospital can accommodate 200 individuals at max, R0 = 4 scenario would overwhelm the healthcare system, and patients would not get the necessary treatments due to scarcity of resources. That’s why public health officials implemented “social distancing” protocols; the primary purpose is to reduce α and prevent saturated healthcare systems. A lower R0 slows down infection, but it lingers in the population for longer, allowing for a second wave of infection if R0 is increased. For example, R0 = 1.5 curve reaches a peak after 120 days (4 months). So what’s the point of delaying the inevitable? Hold on to that question!
The results shown here are super sensitive to the parameters (α and β) of the model. The fun thing is that you can play with those parameters to reproduce the real-world data. In case you have a hard time matching your simulated data to the real data, you can always add layers to your model. For example, the “infectious (I)” group can further be divided into multiple categories with mild, medium, and severe symptoms, and these high-resolution models would give better predictions about the real situation.
I hope that I have convinced you how mathematical modeling is powerful enough to give us insights about epidemic progression. These models help our administrators decide on appropriate public policies for ensuring our safety.
If you are a math lover and want to explore this field in greater detail, check out the following videos:
Author: Jeffrey Letourneau
As social distancing measures went into effect, laboratory research underwent a rapid ramp-down and is now majorly restricted. With rare exceptions for COVID-19 research and maintenance required to ensure future viability of labs, scientists are now, for the most part, working from home.
For most, the lack of access to critical lab equipment has put lab research on hiatus. That means transitioning to reading scientific articles, writing papers and grants, and analyzing data. This transition has created new challenges for a group used to working with their hands, potentially leading to feelings of boredom and guilt over low productivity. To combat this, many scientists have gotten creative, turning their kitchens and garages into labs. Regardless of whether these at-home experiments have the potential to generate publishable data, the extra time at home has been an opportunity to rediscover the fun in science in a free and relaxed setting.
Strategies for at-home science vary widely. Dr. Jennifer Tsang, a science communications and marketing coordinator at Addgene, put together a microbiology quarantine bingo with some activities that resonate with microbiologists stuck at home. Items on the bingo card ranged from actual work like “organize lab notes” to more mundane microbe-related tasks like “eat cheese” and “wash hands,” and even “miss the smell of E. coli.” Among these activities, Tsang herself has been making sourdough and kombucha. “I like that it's something I'm growing and that I have to check on it every so often. It's like an experiment, but now I get to eat it.” Like Tsang, other scientists across disciplines have found joy in growing, building, and testing from home.
Recreating the Lab at Home
During the warmer months, Charlie Deaton spends a lot of his time in the field, monitoring water quality, bird and turtle nesting, and other metrics of health at the NC Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve (or simply, The Reserve). However, Deaton, a research specialist at The Reserve, says that the field season is on hold for the time being. “It's hard to do proper social distancing in boats, which we need to access most of our sites.” As a result, Deaton has shifted to computational work to understand the reserve’s geography, such as processing drone imagery and updating maps. As a “fun break” from computer work, Deaton temporarily turned his kitchen into a lab in order to filter water samples. These samples will be frozen and shipped to the National Park Service as part of an ongoing water quality monitoring program.
Meghan Barrett, a PhD candidate in biology at Drexel University, also turned her kitchen into a makeshift lab, albeit for a very different type of research. Barrett studies Centris pallida, a solitary digger bee in the southwestern United States. “I've […] had to downgrade my expectations for how much I can reasonably get done this year, without access to all the right equipment and supplies,” she says. Without a lab, Barrett has taken to dissecting bees on the counter next to her toaster. Borrowing a water bath from the lab has enabled her to continue experiments to understand the maximum temperature at which the bees can survive.
Temperature, Barrett explains, is an important environmental factor related to mating behavior in the males of this species, which can exhibit one of two different strategies. The mating strategy of small males, “has them hovering 1-3 feet off the ground near trees (much cooler), while large males are in full view of the sun on a ground that can easily heat up to over 50°C!” Barrett is hoping to answer questions about brain-behavior relationships in these bees. For example, “How long can a large male stay in his hot microclimate before he gets forced out due to lethal constraints?” Barrett’s work also has important implications for understanding how global warming might affect this in other species. “If climate change continues to go the way it's going, will it have selective effects on the behavioral diversity of species?”
This is not the first time Barrett has done science from home. Previously, she studied the solitary wasp, Isodontia auripes, dissecting nests in her kitchen to understand the structures’ architecture. “Once I opened a nest and a cloud of parasitic wasps flew out; my husband was… not pleased. He's not an entomologist, so I don't think he found the moment quite as cool as I did.'
Others, too, have startled family by blurring the lines between home and lab. Emory Wellman, a master’s candidate in biology at East Carolina University recently surprised her family by ordering “a soldering iron, epoxy, and a bunch of other stuff” to build wave sensors in her garage. Wellman researches materials that can serve as a base for self-sustaining oyster communities, and under normal circumstances, she would be working in the field a few days a week this time of year. “Essentially all coastal habitats are being lost or degraded, intertidal oysters among them,” Wellman says, “This project is cool because it has the potential to create a new oyster habitat while also potentially giving the adjacent eroding salt marsh a fighting chance.” Part of the work involves using wave sensors to measure how well the different materials that serve as the base of an oyster reef can reduce the impact of waves. To have a chance at getting these measurements this summer, Wellman plans to build them from home.
Beyond practical reasons, Wellman is looking forward to a change of pace. “I see the wave gauge construction as a way to make the most of quarantine and develop a new skill. It will also be a welcome change of scene from my desk and computer.” Wellman hopes to deploy her newly made wave sensors this summer, even if a few of them get destroyed in the name of science. “Hurricane season is projected to be a doozy, so ‘sacrificing’ a few sensors for the possibility of getting storm wave energy data is attractive.” To that point, one aspect of building wave sensors at home that particularly excites Wellman is having a tangible final product to show for her work. It can be difficult to have that feeling when reading or working on digital tasks, which helps to explain why some, like Wellman, see at-home lab work as a way “to make the most of this forced time indoors.”
Science just for the fun of it
One of the activities listed in Tsang’s bingo card is the Winogradsky column. Named after microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky, this famous experiment is a method for growing soil microbes. As the culture develops over a period of weeks, layers of bright color can form, revealing patterns of microbial growth.
Having just wrapped up a project studying pigments in microalgae, Patrick Colledge, a third year undergraduate Biology student at Swansea University turned to this classic experiment to get a taste of lab work from home. Colledge was inspired to start his own Winogradsky column when sitting in the office of his mentor, Prof. Dan Eastwood, who had multiple well-developed columns on display. “Fortunately, I live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, so I was able to find a muddy body of water to collect a small portion of mud and water to fill a column with.”
The Winogradsky column can even be used to compare growth patterns under varying conditions, as Dr. Rob Ferguson, a senior research officer at the University of Essex, has done. By adding different nutrients, such as an egg yolk or a rusty nail, or by varying the environment by keeping one in the sunlight and one in the dark, different results can be obtained. Ideally, Ferguson would love to use some more advanced equipment to analyze his columns. “I would definitely want to be able to do DNA sequencing at home. For example, I could identify the microbes in my columns. Indeed, this is possible with portable platforms like MinION, so maybe for my birthday!”
Ferguson had never made a Winogradsky column before, “but always wanted to have a crack at it.” The inspiration came in part from the extra time, but also the fact that it was a science experiment he could do with his kids. “My kids play with mud in the garden all day so I thought, they might be into this.”
Similarly, Dr. Kendra Maas, a facility scientist at the University of Connecticut, has made at-home science a family activity by hunting for tardigrades with her son. Tardigrades, also known as water bears, are eight-legged micro-animals known for their ability to survive in extreme environments. “I've been meaning to go tardigrade hunting with Jack […] for a while but we never seemed to have the time.”
Lessons learned from at-home science
Many have argued that we are all born scientists, but that most of us lose that innate curiosity somewhere along the way. Even for professional scientists, it can be easy to get bogged down by grant writing, competition, and imposter syndrome. Taking the opportunity of being away from the lab to engage in some at-home science for fun is a great way to rediscover the joy and excitement of scientific discovery. And as with research in the lab, an important part of science is sharing your discoveries with others, be that posting pictures on social media, creating a guide to tardigrade hunting, or giving a piece of sourdough starter to a friend.. As we forge a new normal in a post-COVID-19 world, hopefully we can hold onto some of these lessons and remember to take time to find the joy in science.