Quicker dissemination of research and forms of extensive and open collaboration are accelerating scientific processes all over the world
The coronavirus pandemic is changing the world – not just the quotidian socioeconomic norms, but also the process through which science works.
In many ways, the pandemic – through its morbid nature and humanity's urge to survive, has accelerated the pace of scientific innovations.
American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept of "paradigm shift" which he used to explain how science changes gradually and in phases.
Dr Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist, recently wrote an article in The Economist where she expressed her opinions on how the coronavirus pandemic may have brought paradigm shifts to science.
The article is also a mélange of personal anecdotes and her experience as a veteran in the scientific community.
As a professor of chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr Doudna is at the centre-front of scientific developments which are taking place with the emergence of Covid-19.
In her write-up, she described science as "humanity's attempt to understand the longest-running mystery we know: The origin and function of the natural world and our place in it".
Doudna wrote that science and its practice seem to be undergoing rapid and perhaps permanent changes.
She argued that in three ways the pandemic is shaking up the scientific status quo, which include public respect for science, how discoveries are communicated and the norms of collaboration.
She also said that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the respect accorded to science.
Students contemplating their careers may now choose scientific research as rewarding profession, as the value of investing in science for both immediate discoveries and future preparedness has come into sharp relief.
"The hunger to understand the biology of coronaviruses, including their evolution, passage through animal hosts and correspondence between genetics and disease, highlights the importance of a fact-based understanding of the world. If ignorance and fear can be supplanted by trust in scientists and the scientific method, we could see a long-term change in public attitudes – and public investment," Doudna made a succinct comment.
The communication and dissemination of science is also undergoing rapid changes.
The most apparent area is in research publications.
On that note, Doudna shared an anecdote: "An adviser once told me that if science is not published, it does not exist. His point was that its practice depends on results entering the public domain for discussion, debate and replication by other scientists."
She added that such process enables discoveries that lead to new understanding and, in turn, to more discoveries.
However, the publication process is shifting. Biologists are adopting "preprints" as an accepted form of publication.
These days, researches are less likely to be kept under wraps for months, awaiting peer review in often pay-walled journals.
"Over late-night drinks at a conference several years ago, an editor at a prominent journal lamented this trend, wondering how long she might have her job. After a slow start, the culture around preprints has shifted quickly: scientists scramble for new information on the pandemic and post their work immediately," Dr Doudna shared as another anecdote.
However, the fast paced publication process of scientific findings also begets challenges.
For example – preprints are not peer-reviewed or formally evaluated for scientific quality. Sometimes journalists treat those findings as whole truths, which the public may misunderstand.
"Most biologists believe it is a good development, provided that peer-review remains the standard for journals. And preprints are quickly dissected on social media, enabling scientists to quickly replicate and build on findings," Jennifer Doudna remarked.
Undoubtedly, rapid and open access to research will improve the communication of science and the involvement of non-scientists in enterprises.
The changes in respectability and communication point to a third shift: collaboration. During this pandemic, scientists are suddenly in the spotlight in ways not seen in decades.
They are working across disciplines, co-operating to make discoveries and applying novel technologies to a degree reminiscent of the Second World War, believed Dr Doudna.
She shared another one of her personal experience in this regard: "In March, my colleagues and I at the Innovative Genomics Institute established a large consortium of academic and corporate scientists to create a clinical testing lab and to fast-track research on the pandemic."
Multi-institutional groups as such usually take months, if not years, to build.
But it can happen much faster and benefit everyone if barriers such as intellectual property are removed and there is a shared urgency to solve critical global issues.
Extensive and open collaboration is accelerating the scientific process.
"A team of Chinese and Australian researchers published the first genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in January, enabling researchers worldwide to access the genetic map for free. An open database of nearly 4,000 novel coronavirus sequences now charts mutations and virus transmission, with new sequences added every day from researchers across the globe. Work towards a much-needed vaccine would not be possible without this research," Doudna added.
By forging links themselves, researchers can bypass politics to serve as a trusted early-warning system for global health, and champion education and evidence-based decisions with greater public buy-in and lower political friction.
Doudna argued that the world must rely on a renewed push for "science diplomacy."
Eventually there will be a vaccine, and the pandemic will shift from a crisis, to a challenge then to a mere memory – rendering the world a different place.
Long-standing challenges to the scientific enterprise are building towards a Kuhnian paradigm shift that will turn the practice of scientific research on its head.
Present circumstances are pushing to conduct research at a speed, scale and scope that previously were only seen in stories and films.