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Where is our Vaccine? A Plea for a Renewed Public Understanding of Science

7 Apr 2020

Associate Research Fellow Tim Howles reflects on our desire for a coronavirus vaccine, and draws on the work of Isabelle Stengers to suggest what this might highlight about the wider public understanding of science.

“Where is our vaccine…?”

That is the exasperated cry many of us find ourselves uttering right now. After all, the future seems a lot less clear today than it once did. We don’t know how long this societal lockdown will last, nor what kind of exit strategy will be possible to bring it to a close. In these circumstances, a vaccine presents itself as a quick and easy solution.

But the discourse around vaccination is interesting. We seem to be struggling to plot a route between patience and expectation; between realism and hope. We know that the research and development process is slow, requiring lengthy clinical trials and strict regulatory approvals. We appreciate that a vaccine against Covid-19 is unlikely to be ready for worldwide use until the beginning of next year at the earliest. And yet, do we not hope for something sooner? Surely the scientists will find a way. This duality was neatly summed-up in a recent BBC interview with Professor Chris Whitty, the UK chief medical adviser, held on 23rd March. Asked about the strategy for combatting coronavirus, Professor Whitty replied with admirable temperance: “long term, clearly a vaccine is one way out of this and we all hope that it will happen as quickly as possible”. But then, as if sensing the disappointment of the journalist, he shifted into an entirely different register: “don’t worry”, he added, “science will come up with solutions”.

Of the many reconfigurations that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing about at breakneck speed, one that has perhaps gone under-the-radar relates to the public understanding of science. The crisis is revealing the extent of our investment in science and technology. Not just to provide us with the material things we enjoy, but to frame a vision of the future that can sustain our very existence. At a time like this, if science cannot “save us”, then what can? And so, we wait with a sort of messianic expectation for a vaccine that, we trust, will come soon.

But of course, as the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers has pointed out, this sort of quasi-religious discourse is to confuse the role and function of science, and its mediation to the public sphere. In fact, though we speak easily of “the public understanding of science”, it seems to me that at least three elements of this phrase seem to have become rather unclear in recent years: the word “public”, the word “understanding” and the word “science”! The current crisis might just present an opportunity for some sort of reconfiguration between these, a reconfiguration that is long overdue.

Stengers’ work provides a fascinating narrative of the category errors that can ensue when scientific “facts” encounter political “values”. Of course, we live in a time in which scientific research has become increasingly complex and specialised. And yet, science has to “land” somehow in the public sphere, which is the arena of competing political, social and economic interests. Both parties, she argues—the scientists and the general public—must work hard to mediate this gap.

When public resistance to scientific outputs materialises, as was evident a few years back in the case of genetically modified organisms, we sense the frustration of the scientists. If only the public was free to “follow the facts”, as we do, they say. These “facts” are shouting loud and clear to us; why can’t others hear as we do? Mention is made of the “deficit model” of communication, which attributes public opposition to a lack of exposure or inability to understand the evidence. So, let’s have more data, they say. And yet, as has been amply illustrated in the field of climate science, the mere presentation and accumulation of scientific data does not necessarily induce the sort of transformation in human attitudes and behaviour that is required. Something else is needed. Meanwhile, we citizens grow impatient. Where are the outputs we were promised? Why is the data so complex and abstract? Why is science not reacting with more agility to the problems and challenges we are facing? And so, we turn to the next best thing: Google. We find online a wealth of alternative “facts” that seem to provide ready-made answers to the questions we are asking. Non-accredited sources of information, rumour and, most damagingly, conspiracy theories abound, as we accuse the scientists of working to an agenda that is not in our interest. Thus, as Stengers points out, the knowledge economy is progressively degraded and the “epistemological dislocation” between scientists and the general public grows wider.

Stengers’ solution is for a generous and creative tolerance of the different “epistemologies” that characterise the two domains. Scientists must understand that laboratory conditions, however vital they are to the construction of scientific rationality, can sometimes land in the public sphere tangentially to the “matters of concern” that are currently occupying our attention. And we citizens, the funders and consumers of scientific research, must be trusting, but also aware of the need to be patient, appreciating that scientists owe it to themselves to remain deaf to our noisy or anxious demands for an immediate solution, lest they compromise the processes that are so crucial to their own craft.

A renewed public understanding of science, along the lines that Stengers suggests, is crucial at a time like this. We do indeed need science to come to our aid. But we must not envisage ourselves as merely passive recipients of a salvation that will be dispensed to us from above. We too can play our role in fomenting the public conditions in which a vaccine can be developed, tested and received. In doing so, we can contribute to the new society that will be needed for all us in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Image from flickr: by Gresham College (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

More blogs on religion and public life…

Existential risk and the sabbath of the land by Greg Smith

The Plague Doctors: Imagining the pandemics of the future by Karen Lord

Liberty and response-ability in the time of coronavirus by Tina Hearn

My organism knows so much more than I do by Jeff Leonardi

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