The New Voices in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (“New Voices”) project was established by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to provide diverse perspectives on emerging scientific challenges, to enhance the effective communication of science and technology with affected communities, and to provide evidence-based feedback to local and national leaders for improved policy responses to national and global challenges.
In the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis, the initial 2018-2020 cohort of New Voices was holding our semi-annual meeting at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. And just as our conversations began, it was becoming clear that the epidemic was beginning to have worldwide impact. Therefore, in response to this public health emergency, we shifted our focus to the role of the scientific community in mounting an effective response. The answer we came to collectively was that scientists and health professionals must be prepared to step up at this moment and help America, and the world, respond to this crisis.
The current American situation is characterized by three significant factors.
The first factor is the lack of accurate data to determine the scope and nature of the outbreak in the United States. The U.S. population is around 331 million people. The current estimate of Americans tested for COVID-19 is in the thousands. Technical challenges with the test, paired with very stringent criteria to initiate testing and a lack of transparency around testing numbers—particularly by individual states—have created a situation where there are insufficient data for public health officials to mount evidence-based efforts to protect the public.
The second factor is the lack of clear and coordinated guidance from national-level agencies. This, combined with the lack of accurate data, has made it difficult for local authorities to make timely decisions. As stated by Tedros Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, the organization was “concerned that in some countries the level of political commitment and the actions that demonstrate that commitment don’t match the level of the threat we all face.”
The third factor is the seeming prioritization of protecting economic activity over the recommendations of public health officials and medical experts. This appearance of distrust in science, and in scientists, only exacerbates an erosion of public trust. It also calls into question the extent to which decisions in response to the crisis are made on the basis of data and evidence.
All of these factors highlight an urgent need for scientists, public health experts, engineers, federal and local agencies and those in the private sector to step up and act on behalf of the greater societal good.
Fortunately, several promising initiatives have emerged to do just that. For example, the FDA has authorized Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA)–certified laboratories to field molecular diagnostic tests validated for the disease. The University of Washington Medical School has been approved to conduct testing. California state authorities have ordered insurers to waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus testing. Washington state will cover costs of COVID-19 testing for its uninsured residents, and insurance companies in North Carolina and New Jersey have announced plans to cover the costs of testing. These are all positive steps. However, there is much more that needs to be done—and done quickly.
As mid-career scientists, engineers and health professionals from wide-ranging scientific institutions around the U.S., and who are connected to our respective local communities, we offer the following suggestions for how each of us can respond to the COVID-19 crisis:
Supporting rapid collaborations between scientists and the civic tech communities to educate the public. Science is rarely communicated effectively to the public. In times like these, scientists must rely on new methods to amplify the truth. Technology offers immense power to quickly amplify messages, if used in the right way. Joining these two communities can dramatically help disseminate accurate information in a time when the public needs access to facts. The collaboration between these two communities may involve the formulation of online and offline campaigns centered around best practices for prevention, spread reduction and treatment; the utilization of scientists to amplify accurate information from trusted sources (such as the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and to dismiss inaccurate information; and the creation of (crowdsourced) visualizations of positive COVID-19 cases to help with mitigation and treatment planning.
An example of an agile response developed between the scientific and civic tech communities to help with the COVID-19 crisis is the Jennifer AI chatbot that the New Voices team and a start-up company created within just days of our meeting. Jennifer is a proof-of-principle AI system to learn if public information from reputable sources can be effectively organized and shared.
While the information that Jennifer provides is not medical advice, and it does not provide original information about COVID-19, it does access publicly available information and resources from reputable health organizations, such as the CDC and WHO, and provides a user-friendly way for people to access this information. Through this platform we hope to improve public access to vetted and reliable information sources and to ascertain, in real time, the questions that the public wants answered.
Inclusion, engagement with and mobilization of local resources. In a time when an outbreak of this scale threatens to overwhelm a community’s ability to respond, new resources must be utilized. For example, to ensure sufficient capacity of public health and hospital resources and the scaling up of cost-effective testing, the engagement of research institutions may be necessary. Scientists working across academia and industry have decades of experience and expertise with molecular biology techniques that can provide solutions toward challenges with COVID-19 diagnostic tests. That expertise should be leveraged by state and federal decision makers. This crisis also calls for new partnerships and support for infectious disease research. Scientists will always be at the forefront of understanding disease and developing cures. One example is the work of University of North Carolina researchers who are taking their decades of experience with coronavirus to better understand COVID-19 in order to develop effective treatments. They and others must be empowered with the resources they need to do that work effectively.
Empowering science advisors to influence and direct the course of action taken by leaders and policymakers at the local and federal level. This may include establishing and empowering task forces for state and federal legislators. These task forces would be composed of scientists, medical professionals, business leaders, foundations, technologists and community leaders who would come together and help decision makers tackle near-term and long-term challenges associated with COVID-19. It is widely known that there is a need for more evidence-based decision making when it comes to public policy. Scientists, engineers and medical doctors, working alongside decision makers, can help to close this gap.
The scale of COVID-19, and the changes in the ways we work and live, may make this problem feel too overwhelming to combat. However, the world needs expert voices now more than ever.
As scientists, engineers and health professionals, we see that this is our moment to bring our collective knowledge to bear on this challenge and change the trajectory of this response. Each of us can play our part. Each of us has an opportunity to make a positive impact. And our response to this imminent threat will be an indicator of our preparedness and ability to solve other large, complex global challenges that require multidisciplinary expertise to be rapidly integrated across communities of practice and international borders.
The time to act is now.
NOTE: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent positions of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine or the authors’ institutions.
New Voices in Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine includes:
Tyrone Grandison, PhD, is the founder of the Data-Driven Institute.
Patricia Silveyra, MSc, PhD, is the Beerstecher-Blackwell Distinguished Term Scholar, associate professor and director of the Biobehavioral Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ali Nouri, PhD, is the president of the Federation of American Scientists.
Yunyao Li, PhD, is a principal research staff member and senior manager of the Scalable Knowledge Intelligence group at IBM Research—Almaden..
Frances Colón, PhD, is the CEO at Jasperi Consulting.
Joel P. Baumgart, PhD, DABT, is the assistant vice provost at Emory University.
Michelle Birkett, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University and director of the CONNECT Complex Systems and Health Disparities Research Program.
Olujimi Ajijola, MD, PhD, is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, David Geffen School of Medicine.
Yunyao Li, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California.
Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.