In the midst of a pandemic, let’s not ignore the rest of science

Praise for Covid vaccine creators is deserved, but the extraordinary work of other scientists must not be overlooked, says Nicholas Dirks

December 31, 2020
Source: istock

The story of the development of Covid-19 vaccines is one of the great triumphs of modern science that offers hope for a happier and more prosperous year ahead.

But while the excitement about vaccines created at record speed is understandable, we should not overlook other incredible science that has continued under difficult circumstances and that addresses other global challenges – climate change, cancer, food production, energy, air pollution and communicable diseases unrelated to coronavirus.

These challenges have not gone away. A crisis such as the pandemic should remind us of the importance of investing in scientific research across many fields since we do not know where the next crisis lurks, or the next big scientific discovery that might change our lives for the better.

Most scientific advancements, of course, do not move quite so quickly as vaccine development; it is typically incremental, and, more often than not, a case of two steps forward and one step back. But recognising the value of the painstaking work in fields that rarely make the headlines is important.

Consider for a moment, the recent honorees of the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the UK, which recognise outstanding researchers aged 42 or under within life and physical sciences, chemistry, as well as engineering, and is run by my organisation.

On the surface of it, studying dinosaurs might seem frivolous in the age of global pandemics. But palaeontologists such as Stephen Brusatte at the University of Edinburgh – one of nine receiving awards – serve another crucial role beyond the value of their work: they are often the first connection to getting children to understand that science is cool. And if we want to ensure that the STEM professional pipeline of the future has a continual flow of talent, we are going to need to make sure those children getting excited about a velociraptor or a T. rex will channel that same excitement into a future STEM-related career.

Beyond the headlines about life-saving drugs to treat cancer, diabetes and other diseases, are also years of painstaking work in fields adjacent to drug discovery. Many of the feel-good stories of recent decades would not have been possible without the work of organic chemists. In the UK, Daniele Leonori, from the University of Manchester, computational biologist John Marioni at the European Bioinformatics Institute and the University of Cambridge, and evolutionary microbiologist Edze Westra, at the University of Exeter, are all working on ways to improve or create new drugs, or even to create completely new ways of treating infection and disease.

And while we don’t give the internet a second thought, it remains a marvellous achievement – built, to a large part, on the work of materials scientists and electrical engineers in academia. Blavatnik honorees such as Themis Prodromakis, from the University of Southampton, who is helping to devise new nanoscale computer hardware, and condensed matter physicist Artem Mishchenko, from Manchester, whose work might help to develop next-generation electronic transistors, might play a part in further transformative changes to how we live our lives.

Studying the mystery of the origin of life on Earth is inherently fascinating, but it also has extraordinary practical applications. In his work studying the simple molecules and elements that form life, UCL organic chemist Matthew Powner, another Blavatnik honoree, has discovered important new chemical reactions that can be used to synthesise valuable molecules such as nucleic acids, amino acids and peptides. Meanwhile, Sinéad Farrington, at the University of Edinburgh, is leading research on the nature of the Higgs boson and the formation of matter at the smallest scale.

These young researchers – surrounded by equally motivated teams of scientists – might not make headlines that resonate around the world, at least not today. Their work is complicated, unglamorous and may only incrementally move the science forward. But it is the moving forward that’s key here, because others will come along and use that research to make larger steps. This may lead to game-changing treatments for disease, technologies to make our lives better or even enhance our understanding of the world and the universe altogether.

As we rejoice in the optimistic news about the vaccines and treatments that will bring an end to the Covid-19 pandemic, let us tip our hat to those whose work may not seem so significant today, knowing that, within a decade, we will wonder how we managed without it.

Nicholas Dirks is president and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences, a scientific society whose mission is to advance scientific research, education and policy.

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