There is something fabulously exciting about watching science riding to the rescue. The gloom about the coronavirus pandemic began to lift dramatically in the past several days as good news about vaccines came out.
Out front Oxford University, with a well-established history in vaccines, announced that it had started trials on people and that it might have a vaccine by September. It has a manufacturing partnership with AstraZeneca, a giant European pharmaceutical company, and it is hoped that a million doses can be produced by September, even as there is not absolute certainty that it will work. Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford’s Jenner Institute, says she is “80 percent” certain that it will.
Incidentally, some tests on rhesus macaque monkeys were done at the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.
Labs in all major countries are in close pursuit of Oxford. What does seem certain is that the time when a viable vaccine can be brought to market is shrinking. The next challenge will be to manufacture proven vaccines in the hundreds of millions of doses needed.
To me the big thing is not who finds a vaccine, but rather how science answers the call to arms when the challenge is there—and financial support is provided. Much critical research in many of the coronavirus vaccine efforts has been provided not by governments, but by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
There is reason to wonder why Gates has been out in front of many governments, including the United States. This points to government failure to adequately support research and to prepare non-military defenses. Not every threat a modern nation faces comes from national armed forces.
Across the spectrum of research, private money is raised to do the work that should be in the government’s purview. Money for science is a struggle: There are competing philosophies, political and scientific, about research.
To begin with, all research is messy. The scientific method, as Michael Short of MIT reminded me recently, is based on try, fail, try again; test, prove, then proceed.
Conservatives have tended to be skeptical about a lot of science, pooh-poohing the study of obscure microbes and what they see as dubious investigation. They have consistently demanded quantifiable results from the government’s scientific establishment, looking for practical applications and unhappy about research for its own sake. They have forgotten the real driver of all science: to know.
Liberals have favored, as you would expect, the social sciences over the hard ones. They are more prepared to treat social studies as science than high-energy physics.
What is lacking is something that we used to have in Congress: the Office of Technology Assessment, which was the scientific equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office. As with the often-quoted CBO, the OTA was a tool for members of Congress; a means for them to get complex scientific issues right and help them to understand the budgeting for those.
The OTA was created in 1972 and looked to be a firm part of the support system of Congress. But the Newt Gingrich-led House axed it in 1995. There have been several attempts to bring the OTA back in the House; last year, a bill was introduced that would have re-established it at a modest $6 million, but no action was taken.
The OTA provided a valuable service in saving members of Congress from themselves; advising them when they come back from their constituencies believing hearsay as scientific fact—the same thing that has bedeviled President Trump in his briefings on the COVID-19 crisis.
I was well acquainted with the OTA and I always thought its greatest value was not in its formal advice, but rather in its informal help to members—who often confuse what they are told by sources as disparate as their children and lobbyists—from saying something about science that did not hold up.
As it is, we are all standing where we can see the scientific cavalry saddle up and ride out. This is heart-pumping, reassuring and confirms that science should not be neglected for budget or other reasons.
To have a viable scientific infrastructure is to be defended from non-military attack, ranging from cybersecurity to a virus. Scientists agree on this: There will be more.