A guest post from James Phimister about the importance of standing up for science
Today’s post is by James Phimister, who recently joined NEJM Group in a senior, non-editorial role. Views expressed here are his own. He can be found on LinkedIn, where he occasionally writes.
I used to study accidents: how they happened; what happened before them. There was a phrase in the field called “vu jádè.” It is the sensation of being in a situation that you have certainly never been in before, but you have the sinking feeling that something very bad is about to happen. The turn of phrase is amusing, but it isn’t. The phrase reminds me of the Air France pilot on the ill-fated AF 447 from Rio headed to Paris, who, shortly before the crash, as the cockpit flooded with alarms, purportedly shouted “je ne comprends rien” (“I don’t understand anything”).
Today the earth’s control panel mirrors the Air France flight. Multiple alarms are sounding, they are conflating, cascading, and compounding. The ravages of climate change are beginning — it is ruining our oceans, our shores, and our land. Over the past few weeks, over five million acres on the U.S. West Coast have been incinerated. We are plundering our oceans and leaving a layer of plastic behind. Rain forests are being decimated. We use our skies as landfills. A third great extinction is upon us — this time man-made. We know all of this, and yet somehow, we are collectively impotent in our response.
Close to home the loss I experience is poignant. Native trees are tired and struggling with the heat and lack of cold. Ash trees have been infested by the emerald ash borer. Tall trees are pulled down by English ivy and Virginia creeper. New trees cannot grow through the thicket. Streams and ponds are choked by purple loosestrife. It is getting warmer. Nights are lighter than they should be. There are fewer insects. There are fewer fish. There are fewer birds.
And now Covid, with its potent mix of contagiousness and lethality. My experience of Covid encapsulates how I experience the ruination of our planet. On a personal level I experience loss — we have had friends become sick, a family member has died, and we have come to realize it will affect our children’s lives in ways that ours never were. On a national and global level, while I have been heartened by how science is helping combat the virus and the disease, I have been gobsmacked by the U.S federal government’s shambolic response and its wanton disregard for science.
I wonder about the role of scholarly information during this time, and more broadly the communication of science. What is our role? Should it change? I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Fauci (America Dissected, July 4, 2020), talking about how he navigates the line between science and politics. Dr. Fauci says:
You’ve just got to stick with the science, present things, advice, recommendations, or what have you, based on evidence and science, and if that clashes with something that is political then don’t get involved in any of that, just continue to stick with the science. And it works. It really does.
Yes, I get it, ensuring scientific advice doesn’t cross political bounds can preserve an administrator’s ability to continue to provide advice across multiple administrations. And for Dr. Fauci that has helped ensure career preservation — and we have benefited from it. When I was at the National Academies we hued to this line too. In addressing a topic of national importance, research and facts were distilled and presented along with recommendations, but reports were also carefully apolitical. There is a maxim: “When you mix politics and science, you get politics.” It is best not to go there.
But does it really work? Really? When we look at the console of scientific information and every light is flashing, every horn is blaring, can we sit back and say it is working? As politics has barged into science, with scientific evidence of national importance ignored, suppressed, or intentionally distorted for political gain, we no longer have the option of ‘not going there’ as ‘there’ is now ‘here’. In this respect I am not surprised that leading science publications are now standing their ground and excoriating the U.S. federal government in its failure to take scientific advice seriously and act accordingly. Recent examples include Do us a favor, March 2020, Science; Reviving the US CDC, May 2020, The Lancet; WHO’s Next – The United States and the World Health Organization, August 2020, NEJM; Trump lied about science, September 2020, Science.
You can see this stand as political, but I don’t. I see it as a stand for science. And it cannot come soon enough. The plane is falling fast, and it is an absolute necessity.