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COVID-19

A draft of history, a template for the future

This week’s issue of Science includes a remarkable editorial from Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that could serve as a first draft of history related to the development of the messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccines. His commentary touches on two policy priorities that have reached an inflection point in the United States—substantially increasing federal investment in research and development and building a diverse scientific workforce.

President Biden has stated that federal investment in research and development should be closer to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) instead of the 0.7% of GDP that it is today. Dr. Fauci’s editorial shows why this is good policy. In identifying key contributors to mRNA vaccine development, he implicitly identifies one that should be mentioned explicitly—the US Congress. From 1999 to 2003, Congress doubled investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over 5 years. This enabled construction of the NIH Vaccine Research Center that was central to the vaccine story. Moreover, the seminal work by Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman that enabled the viability of the mRNA platforms was funded by NIH grants first awarded during the 1999–2003 doubling of the NIH budget. At that time, one in three grant proposals were funded, enabling the pursuit of riskier projects. Today, less than one in five proposals receive funding. Without question, the mRNA vaccines are a product of increased investment in NIH. The vaccines are a lagging indicator of that investment and a clear example of why the United States should again make the bold decision to invest.

Dr. Fauci’s editorial also illuminates another policy priority whose time has come—increasing diversity in science. The individuals he identifies include women and men; Asian, Black, and white Americans; immigrants; international collaborators; and scientists in government, academia, and industry. This remarkably diverse team, at the pinnacle of scientific excellence, is a testament to the orthogonal thinking and boost in creativity that come from diversity of thought derived from diversity of experience. Several are active science communicators, serving as ambassadors for the vaccine and science. To achieve scientific excellence and compete globally, the United States must draw upon talents and thinking from all parts of its diverse population.

This pandemic will not be the last time that science is called upon to mitigate an existential challenge. The cadence of crises to come is likely to quicken. Dr. Fauci’s editorial is a wonderful draft of history, but it should also serve as a template for the future. Dramatically increasing federal investment in science and building a diverse scientific workforce are two policy choices that can ensure that we rise to meet the challenges to come.

Sudip Parikh is the chief executive officer and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.