If the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is to bring into stark relief just whose work is essential.
Around the world, people are coming out to yards and balconies to applaud health care workers. People have new appreciation for oft-ignored sanitation workers and grocery store clerks.
While we cheer on those who keep the wheels of society turning, let’s also spare a thought and some words of thanks for another overlooked, essential group: scientists.
Some years ago, while working at the University of Saskatchewan, I wrote a brief profile on a new faculty member, a young researcher named Darryl Falzarano. His chosen subject was an obscure (to me) disease called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS.
Why, I wondered, was he mucking about with something that, while serious, wasn’t terribly contagious and affected populations on the other side of the world? Plus, the animal reservoir for the MERS virus was the camel – a species not often seen on the Canadian Prairies.
He explained that MERS was a coronavirus, a close relative of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). SARS I knew: the epidemic had been in the news around the world. People had died; people were afraid.
MERS and SARS are zoonotic diseases, that is, they originated in animals. These diseases constitute the majority of emerging threats to human health. Know more about MERS, Falzarano said, and we know more about zoonotic coronaviruses.
I eventually left the university and lost track of Falzarano until early this March. There was an announcement that VIDO InterVac at the University of Saskatchewan was getting a sudden multi-million-dollar funding infusion from the Canadian government. A new coronavirus had gone pandemic: SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Once again, people are dying. People are afraid.
VIDO InterVac, one of the top vaccine development organizations in the country, is tasked with developing a vaccine against the threat. Falzarano leads the team.
As any emergency preparedness professional knows, when a crisis hits, there is no time to plan. The plan must be in place, the people trained, the facilities ready.
Most scientists labour in obscurity, making incremental discoveries and publishing them in journals that are largely read only by their peers. But when a crisis comes, when their expertise is needed, they are ready.
What drives scientists to do what they do? Joy of discovery? Insatiable curiousity? Desire to help society? I suspect the reasons are as varied as the people. Of one thing I am certain: scientists don’t get into it for the money. I remember being shocked to learn that a new assistant professor was being paid slightly less than me, a mere research communications officer. This, for someone who had spent at least eight to 10 years completing undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral education and training.
Their job was and is much harder than mine. Academic researchers must design and run their research programs, apply for and secure grants, hire and supervise graduate students, write up their research for professional journals, teach classes, and serve on university committees. To get it all done, their work schedule can be brutally long.
And every once in a while, scientists’ expertise becomes critical to the welfare of us all. Suddenly, money is no object. But no amount of funding can conjure a PhD in virology and a decade of hard-won knowledge and expertise out of thin air.
When the call comes, scientists must be ready, and they are. For this, we thank them.
It’s an approach advocated by the late Hans Rosling, in his 2017 book Factfulness, written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Yes, things are bad - but they’re getting better. If we reject despair, if we have hope that we can overcome the great challenges that face us as a species, we can get to work to fix things.
Without hope, we react with denial or resignation. If there’s no hope, why bother? Why not, as the saying goes, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?”
“Think about the world,” Rosling wrote. “War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees.”
British writer Matt Ridley, recently wrote a piece in his Rational Optimist blog and elsewhere entitled “We’ve just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.” While readers might be forgiven for spitting out their coffee in disbelief, he goes on to back it up with statistics. For example, he points out that in his lifetime, (Ridley was born in 1958) the number of the world’s people living in extreme poverty had dropped from 60 per cent to 10 per cent today.
We so often focus on the negatives, and there are many. Climate change, plastic pollution, species extinctions, energy, food security, anti-science rhetoric, the rise of populism, and the weaponization of information to threaten democracy. How can we possibly have hope in the face of all this?
“The answer is: because bad things happen while the world still gets better,” Ridley writes. “Yet get better it does, and it has done so over the course of this decade at a rate that has astonished even starry-eyed me.”
While we struggle to rise and overcome the great challenges that face us, let’s pause to recognize and savour our successes. We have conquered diseases that once killed and crippled millions. We put a hole in our planet’s ozone layer, but we came together and fixed it. In the mid-20th century, war killed tens of millions, levelled cities and shattered economies. We have not yet conquered war, but seen in the light of these conflagrations, we have at least made progress.
“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving,” Rosling wrote. “Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview."
As the new year begins, let us step forward with hope, based on facts, encouraged by knowledge of our past successes. Yes, the challenges are enormous. But we’ve faced enormous challenges before. We’ve got this.
I'm a science writer based in Saskatoon, Canada. While I write on a wide range of topics, I most often find myself exploring life and environmental sciences as well as the social science aspects of science communications. Examples include agricultural biotechnology, food and water security, and public response to innovations in genetic engineering and energy production.