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Marking 1 year of COVID-19

This week marks the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic. In Science’s editorial this week, U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins writes about the lessons that researchers have learned during the past year. Collins and his colleagues, especially Anthony Fauci, Barney Graham, and Kizzmekia Corbett, have provided outstanding scientific leadership in the efforts to understand the nature of the virus, pinpoint some useful therapeutics, and most importantly, identify a number of very effective vaccines. But the year also leaves the scientific community with many hard lessons on moving these research achievements to success in fighting the pandemic. What went wrong?

Although there is much to celebrate, many Americans have not accepted the realities of the pandemic. While viral variants loom on the horizon, over a dozen states have dropped their mask-wearing requirements. The precise impact of the variants is unknown, but the safest assumption is that the virus isn’t quite done wreaking havoc. It makes all the sense in the world to wait a little longer before lifting restrictions, but that message isn’t getting through. People in many parts of the country have yet to overcome doubt about the importance of masks or, in some cases, over whether the virus even exists. Especially disheartening has been the unwillingness of many front-line health care workers to get vaccinated.

What indeed went wrong? The forces of misinformation through social media and the squelching of government scientists by the Trump administration didn’t help. But somewhere along the way, a substantial portion of the public must have lost trust in science—or else none of the misinformation efforts would have worked. The scientific community must look inward at its own failures in public communication over the past decades. As I wrote in a blog last week, I think fault lies in the failure to prioritize science policy and science communication alongside bench research. University faculty sometimes lose interest in students who want to leave research for so-called “alternative careers” that can help build public trust. Scientists who become well-known public intellectuals often receive scorn from their colleagues who are still in the lab. But during the past year, we could have used more of these folks.

My first job in administration was running the planetarium on the campus at the University of North Carolina, which I saw as a way to build understanding of science. It was also a lot of fun, and we started some great programs that I’m proud of. But when I signed up for the job, I got an email from one of my most scientifically distinguished colleagues reminding me that Carl Sagan was not allowed into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences because of his public advocacy. My colleague was trying to give me good advice, but this mentality has not served scientists or the public well. The scientific community needs to celebrate those who are willing to do the hard work of building trust in science. As COVID-19 exacts an even higher toll, we’re paying the price for not doing so.