Most of the time science is a slow and tedious business. Researchers toil away for decades at obscure limits of human knowledge, collecting and analyzing data, refining theories, writing, debating, and advancing our understanding of the world in tiny increments. Working in small teams on highly specialized projects far from the public eye—that is what most of us are accustomed to doing.
But a calamity upends everything. In early 2020 COVID spread around the globe. Millions of lives were at stake. Yet we knew next to nothing about the nature of the threat. Just a few months earlier no one had ever seen the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
For researchers, the emergence of the disease was an all-hands-on-deck moment. Biologists such as the two of us, along with virologists and immunologists, all pivoted to focus on the new pathogen. And other researchers from across the scientific ecosystem—economists, physicists, engineers, statisticians, psychologists, sociologists, and more—dropped everything to learn about COVID and figure out how they could contribute. Public interest exploded. Scientists with scant experience in public communication learned to work closely with journalists, informing a worried public about what was happening, what to expect next and what people could do to keep themselves safe. The scale of cooperation and collaboration is staggering. Large-scale surveys of scientists done in 2020 and 2021 show that roughly a third of researchers in the U.S. and Europe contributed to the effort.
Read the full piece in Scientific American.