Schafer: Overcoming COVID-19 means changing our own research culture

Emily Schafer, Op-Ed Contributor

As the recent omicron variant surge has proven, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, partially due to resistance to evidence-based practices like vaccines and masking. Surprisingly, surveys of the public indicate an increasing trust in science and stable confidence in scientific leaders. Clearly, we have a lot of work left to do in changing this hypothetical belief in science to a practical trust in scientific practices and institutions. 

What may be less clear is the fact that all scientists, including my fellow researchers and I at Northwestern, have a responsibility to help with all of this. 

As scientists, we are quick to blame the public for not understanding the information at hand, but a lack of information is not the dominant reason that distrust in science exists. Instead, scientists should recognize interaction with the public as a valuable, bidirectional dialogue that educates the public about scientific discovery, informs science on society’s needs and values and improves public opinion of science. This dialogue is only possible if more scientists get involved and distribute the weight of building trust. Scientists have more power than they may realize to change hearts and minds, especially within their own personal networks. 

And yet, the NU scientist community has mostly proceeded business-as-usual (beyond the logistical burdens of COVID-19, of course). There have certainly been some outstanding examples of medical research and care during the pandemic, but these examples have not permeated into broader changes to university culture. Research directions, course requirements and institutional goals have largely remained unchanged by this traumatic, world-altering catastrophe. The vast majority of science graduate students, like myself, return to their labs with the same deadlines, departmental requirements and research pressures — doing our best to shut out what’s going on outside. 

But if we believe that it is important for all people to benefit from and trust in science, then why are we not changing our behaviors? If the pandemic won’t cause us to rethink our collective priorities, what scientific crisis will have to happen before we do?

First, NU should be doing more to support existing efforts of public engagement with science. Our community has already proven an interest in this through the growth of university centers like Science in Society and student-led initiatives like the Science Policy Outreach Taskforce’s Science With Seniors, to name a few. Lending institutional infrastructure and funding can help to both expand the impact of these efforts on Evanston and Chicago communities and make them sustainable beyond the involvement of individual students or groups. 

Even more importantly, NU should be setting the expectation in its scientists that public engagement is a priority. Not only should trainees of all levels — from undergraduate to graduate and above — learn practical science communication skills, but they should also be taught that this type of work, regardless of their future career, is an important responsibility of being a scientist. As an institution, NU and its various departments have the power to teach science communication as a valuable contribution to a person’s degree or professional development through courses, graduation requirements, hiring decisions and more. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first instance of science being politicized and challenged, and it certainly won’t be the last. If we, as scientists, continue to trivialize sharing our science widely with the public and don’t treat public engagement as a responsibility of our position, then we will be doomed to repeat these patterns with every coming crisis. And if NU really wants to call itself a leader in science, it needs to push our scientific community to do better.

Emily Schafer is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.