Science can help solve many of humanity’s problems
The record speed of the development of vaccines, some of them using entirely new techniques, for COVID-19 was an unexpected and hugely positive result of the pandemic, or at least of humans’ reaction to it. Of course, a significant minority of people resisted the vaccines and the whole science of viruses and how to deal with them, but by and large people applauded the efforts and contributions of science and scientists. Anthony Fauci and, to some extent, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, who led the development of the innovative mRNA vaccine, became famous worldwide.
Confirmation of the significant enhancement of the status and image of science and scientists with the general public recently came from a survey — the 3M State of Science Index — which queried more than 17,000 people in 17 countries (the UAE was the lone Arab state to have participated). It found that skepticism toward science declined post-pandemic for the first time in years, now standing at 28 percent.
Even more interestingly, responses to the first question — “Thinking about the present day, how important do you feel science is?” — were stunning. Only about 5 percent said “not important at all,” about 5 percent had no opinion, some 55 percent said “very important” to them, their families, and their local communities, 67 percent said “very important to society in general,” and the rest (26 percent to 36 percent) said “somewhat important.”
Similarly, positive responses were reported regarding trust in science and scientists. And, to close the circle, people explicitly acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on their views: 58 percent said they were “more appreciative of science” following the pandemic and related developments, 32 percent said the pandemic did not have any impact on their views of science, and only 10 percent said they were less appreciative of science following the pandemic.
All this is nice, but we should seek to turn this positive development into further action. Can science do more for humanity, as it did with the coronavirus, and how?
Science keeps increasing its pace and diversity of discoveries and innovations, providing solutions to problems, both old and new, and ranging from health to energy and lifestyles to the environment.
Take climate change, perhaps the biggest global issue and most pressing and perilous problem that humanity faces today. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world-famous and leading university, recently launched a “Climate Grand Challenges” competition, encouraging its researchers to come up with innovative solutions (small or big) to help tackle or mitigate this urgent problem. I should note that MIT officials insisted that solutions were not limited to cutting-edge technologies; they could and should also encompass worthy and useful ideas from the natural and social sciences. More than 300 MIT researchers responded with 100 ideas, 27 of which were selected and funded for development, on topics ranging from carbon removal, management and storage to risk forecasting and adaptation.
Nuclear solutions to our energy and environment problems are also making a comeback. Indeed, people (officials and the general public) are coming to the realization that nuclear energy is, first, very safe (except for extremely rare dangerous events, but even then fatalities and impacts are very limited) and, second, much less environmentally damaging than carbon-based energy sources, such as oil, coal and natural gas. And indeed, we are seeing greater interest in (civilian) nuclear power, including in several Arab states, and exciting innovations in new reactor design are being proposed, providing enticing options to policymakers.
There are many other areas of human life where science can help solve problems or at least improve living conditions, in both the developing and developed worlds. Fast and cheap noninvasive medical techniques can now detect tumors and health problems at early stages, allowing for the treatment and long-term management of illnesses that, until recently, were often fatal. Indeed, life expectancy has improved dramatically everywhere in the world, thanks to progress in medicine, sanitation, nutrition, etc.
In a post-COVID-19 survey, positive responses were reported regarding trust in science and scientists.
Having said all this, I must stress that science cannot by itself “perform” these feats; it needs policies and regulations, which means policymakers and decision-makers getting convinced of this avenue and agenda and setting up programs and laws to implement the scientific solutions that are or will be available to solve our problems.
Furthermore, we as individuals and groups need to play our part too: Reduce our usage of plastic, our extravagant travel (recent data indicates a surge in private jet flights by the ultra-rich) and our meat consumption, and adopt other healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle changes.
More and more today, science and technology can offer important and valuable solutions to humanity’s problems. We need to enlist them fully in addressing our challenges, but also do what is needed individually and collectively to ensure their success.
- Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum