During a recent phone interview, a scientist recounted to me the moment he decided to become a scientist. He was sitting on the foot of his parents’ bed at three in the morning, basking in the glare of the TV while watching Apollo land on the moon.
Recent major science breakthroughs don’t have the visual impact of nationally broadcast space exploration since many of the landmark discoveries in the past few decades occurred at the cellular or molecular level. Scientists sequenced the first human genome, developed induced pluripotent stem cells and CRISPR gene editing technology, discovered the Higgs boson, and developed RNA vaccine technology to provide the COVID-19 vaccines. Did these major discoveries at the microscopic level also inspire kids to become scientists?
Developing a vaccine for a new virus in a year wasn’t accompanied by the powerful visual of the Apollo moon landing, however, the COVID-19 pandemic brought attention to something shrouded in just as much mystery as space itself: the winding path of scientific discovery.
The next generation of researchers, clinicians, and public health officials watched events unfold in real time, better equipping them to discuss scientific progress with a more engaged public that is familiar with the self-correcting nature of science. If we can maintain this increased communication between scientists and the public, future microscopic breakthroughs may garner as much appreciation as “one giant leap for mankind.”
The people leading local and national responses to the pandemic became household names overnight, piquing interest in health sciences in a phenomenon dubbed the “Fauci effect.” The Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health received a 40% increase in applications to graduate programs in epidemiology and health policy. The Association of American Medical Colleges reported an 18% increase in medical school applications, which typically increase by 2.5% each year. The statistics haven’t yet been released, but given the increased interest in the public health and medical sectors, it would not be surprising to see a rise in biomedical research students too.
Because they witnessed the successes and missteps by officials over the last year, the next generation of public health officials, epidemiologists, clinicians, and scientists might naturally focus on new and improved communication strategies for presenting developing research and explaining the self-correcting nature of science. In fact, the studies meant to guide improvement in this area are already underway. Recent research suggests that when scientists admit their mistakes, people are more likely to listen and believe what they say. A key strategy moving forward should include acknowledging that sometimes science doesn’t get it right at first.
The pandemic taught large swaths of communities some science lingo, which will make future scientific conversations easier. More people know what T-cells, antibodies, and mRNA are now than ever before. Now that scientists and the public can speak the same language, discussing scientific findings and how scientists made those discoveries can build trust and understanding.
If the COVID-19 vaccine plays the role of this generation’s Apollo moon landing, it may not only recruit more people to scientific fields, but fundamentally change how we talk about science.