This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.
The global pandemic has made it impossible to ignore the stark disparities that exist within American communities. In the past months, journalists and public health experts have reminded us how longstanding systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Still, the national dialogue noticeably lacks a general awareness of Indigenous people's needs and priorities, especially in the scientific realm.
To learn more about some of the issues facing often-overlooked Indigenous tribal communities, we sought the perspectives of two members of the Navajo Nation: Nonabah Lane, Director of Development of New Mexico Projects at Navajo Power and the founder of Navajo Ethno-Agriculture, a farm that teaches Navajo culture through traditional farming and bilingual education; and Elmer Guy, Ph.D., president of Navajo Technical University, the first university to be established forty years ago on the Navajo Nation that today stands as a premier institution of higher education focusing on a balance between science and technology and traditional culture.
Elmer Guy and Nonabah Lane.
Credits: Navajo Technical University, left, and Diana Levine<p><strong>Nonabah Lane:</strong> The COVID pandemic is really highlighting a lot of ways in which we are lacking, and that's especially true here in our tribal community, because the first thing you need to even address where we are in this science and technology space is the internet. There's a considerable gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of internet. The Navajo Nation is roughly the size of West Virginia, but we don't have anywhere near the broadband and internet access that other "states" this size would have. Some of the more glaring reasons for this go back to historical policies, lack of funding for infrastructure on tribal lands, and current rights-of-way issues, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that larger corporations aren't as willing to take risks in doing business on a tribal trust land. When you don't have the internet, you don't have access to information, you don't have access to what is going on in the world or science or technology, and you can't keep up with work or school.</p><p><br><strong>Dr. Elmer Guy:</strong> That's right. In this pandemic, as we're being forced to go online, I see school buses parked outside for students who don't have internet at home. The buses are equipped with Wi-Fi, so if students can find a way to get to where those buses are parked, they can get on and do their homework. But only then.</p><p>Internet has long been an issue, and the Navajo Nation's telecommunications department created a cyber task force that we at Navajo Technical University (NTU) are members of. One of the things we recently did was to petition the FCC for special temporary authority of an EBS [Educational Broadband Services] 2.5-GHz spectrum that was available but not being used. So now we have that and we're using it to set up hot spots for students to connect. We're also working with the four internet-service companies: Cellular One, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Sacred Wind, and Frontier. As Nonabah was saying, the Navajo Nation is quite large and has five agencies. NTU is in the eastern agency, but Navajo Tribal Utility Authority doesn't have a footprint here, so we partnered with Sacred Wind as well as Frontier to broaden our bandwidth.</p><p>We've also been collaborating with the Navajo Cyber Team on developing a Navajo Nation broadband policy, and we're almost done with that. The Navajo Nation received some CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] funding, and part of that is being used to address broadband. One of the things we're trying to do is see if tribal colleges can qualify for E-Rates [educational rates], since schools are eligible for E-Rates. And so some of the schools are getting connected.</p><p>What's also happening is that the Navajo Nation is trying to expand water lines to families so that they have water to wash their hands during this pandemic. We're recommending that if they're going to dig for the water lines, they might as well lay down conduits, too, so that later we will be able to install fiber as well. We happen to specialize in wireless technology here at NTU, and that is making a significant impact. In the past, it used to be about point-to-point, and when you're trying to serve a community in the valley, you'd have to find a water tank or something high and then get down and into that community from there. But with newer technology, they can bend now into those valleys. We keep reminding the state that they need to address rural communities. We've reached out to congressional members to push them to address broadband issues with Indian communities, and there are a couple of bills out now addressing that.</p><p>Of course, there are other things we're looking at in terms of scientific priorities: artificial intelligence, robotics, and climate change. We're in a high-desert environment, and the sand dunes are increasing because of overgrazing and other factors. Water sources are limited, and air pollution doesn't really help, so robotics could be promising. For example, we're looking at the water-filtering systems for wells so that both animals and humans have access to safe water. We're beginning to see the reach of technology in places like grocery stores, where people can check themselves out without the need for cashiers. So we try to look ahead and project what kinds of jobs will and will not be needed on the Navajo Nation, then have our faculty think about ways of adjusting the curriculum to stay in line with where the world is headed.</p>
Introduction by Mary Inman, Whistleblower Attorney
For most people, when they see the word "whistleblower," the image that leaps to mind is a lone individual bravely stepping forward to shine a light on misconduct she has witnessed first-hand. Meryl Streep as Karen Silkwood exposing safety violations observed while working the line at the Kerr-McGee plutonium plant. Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre in The Informant!, capturing on his pocket recorder clandestine meetings between his employer and its competitors to fix the price of lysine. However, a new breed of whistleblower is emerging who isn't at the scene of the crime but instead figures it out after the fact through laborious review of publicly available information and expert analysis. Elisabeth Bik belongs to this new class of whistleblower.
"There's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great."
Using her expertise as a microbiologist and her trained eye, Bik studies publicly available scientific papers to sniff out potential irregularities in the images that suggest research fraud, later seeking retraction of the offending paper from the journal's publisher. There's no smoking gun, no first-hand account of any kind. Just countless hours spent reviewing scores of scientific papers and Bik's skills and dedication as a science fraud sleuth.
While Bik's story may not as readily lend itself to the big screen, her work is nonetheless equally heroic. By tirelessly combing scientific papers to expose research fraud, Bik is playing a vital role in holding the scientific publishing process accountable and ensuring that misleading information does not spread unchecked. This is important work in any age, but particularly so in the time of COVID, where we can ill afford the setbacks and delays of scientists building on false science. In the present climate, where science is politicized and scientific principles are under attack, strong voices like Bik's must rise above the din to ensure the scientific information we receive, and our governments act upon, is accurate. Our health and wellbeing depend on it.
Whistleblower outsiders like Bik are challenging the traditional concept of what it means to be a whistleblower. Fortunately for us, the whistleblower community is a broad church. As with most ecosystems, we all benefit from a diversity of voices —whistleblower insiders and outsiders alike. What follows is an illuminating conversation between Bik, and Ivan Oransky, the co-founder of Retraction Watch, an influential blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers and related topics. (Conversation facilitated by LeapsMag Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff)
Elisabeth Bik and Ivan Oransky.
(Photo credits Michel & Co Photography, San Jose, CA and Elizabeth Solaka)
I'd like to hear your thoughts, Elisabeth, on an L.A. Times story, which was picking up a preprint about mutations and the novel coronavirus, alleging that the virus is mutating to become more infectious – even though this conclusion wasn't actually warranted.
A lot of the news around it is picking up on one particular side of the story that is maybe not that much exaggerated by the scientists. I don't think this paper really showed that the mutations were causing the virus to be more virulent. Some of these viruses continuously mutate and mutate and mutate, and that doesn't necessarily make a strain more virulent. I think in many cases, a lot of people want to read something in a paper that is not actually there.
The tone level, everything that's being published now, it's problematic. It's being rushed, here it wasn't even peer-reviewed. But even when they are peer-reviewed, they're being peer-reviewed by people who often aren't really an expert in that particular area.
To me, it's all problematic. At the same time, it's all really good that it's all getting out there. I think that five or 10 years ago, or if we weren't in a pandemic, maybe that paper wouldn't have appeared at all. It would have maybe been submitted to a top-ranked journal and not have been accepted, or maybe it would have been improved during peer review and bounced down the ladder a bit to a lower-level journal.
Yet, now, because it's about coronavirus, it's in a major newspaper and, in fact, it's getting critiqued immediately.
Maybe it's too Pollyanna-ish, but I actually think that quick uploading is a good thing. The fear people have about preprint servers is based on this idea that the peer-reviewed literature is perfect. Once it is in a peer-reviewed journal, they think it must have gone through this incredible process. You're laughing because-
I am laughing.
You know it's not true.
Yes, we both know that. I agree and I think in this particular situation, a pandemic that is unlike something our generation has seen before, there is a great, great need for fast dissemination of science.
If you have new findings, it is great that there is a thing called a preprint server where scientists can quickly share their results, with, of course, the caveat that it's not peer-reviewed yet.
It's unlike the traditional way of publishing papers, which can take months or years. Preprint publishing is a very fast way of spreading your results in a good way so that is what the world needs right now.
On the other hand, of course, there's the caveat that these are brand new results and a good scientist usually thinks about their results to really interpret it well. You have to look at it from all sides and I think with the rushed publication of preprint papers, there is no such thing as carefully thinking about what results might mean.
So there's this delicate balance where on one hand we want to spread results really fast as scientists, but on the other hand, we know it's incomplete, it's rushed and it's not great. This might be hard for the general audience to understand.
I still think the benefits of that dissemination are more positive than negative.
Right. But there's also so many papers that come out now on preprint servers and most of them are not that great, but there are some really good studies in there. It's hard to find those nuggets of really great papers. There's just a lot of papers that come out now.
Well, you've made more than a habit of finding problems in papers. These are mostly, of course, until now published papers that you examined, but what is this time like for you? How is it different?
It's different because in the beginning I looked at several COVID-19-related papers that came out and wrote some critiques about it. I did experience a lot of backlash because of that. So I felt I had to take a break from social media and from writing about COVID-19.
I focused a little bit more on other work because I just felt that a lot of these papers on COVID-19 became so politically divisive that if you tried to be a scientist and think critically about a paper, you were actually assigned to a particular political party or to be against other political parties. It's hard for me to be sucked into the political discussion and to the way that our society now is so completely divided into two camps that seem to be not listening to each other.
I was curious about that because I've followed your work for a number of years, as you know, and certainly you have had critics before. I'm thinking of the case in China that you uncovered, the leading figure in the Chinese Academy who was really a powerful political figure in addition to being a scientist.
So that was a case in which I found a couple of papers at first from a particular group in China, and I was just posting on a website called PubPeer, where you can post comments, concerns about papers. And in this case, these were image duplication issues, which is my specialty.
I did not realize that the group I was looking at at that moment was led by one of the highest ranked scientists in China. If I had known that, I would probably not have posted that under my full name, but under a pseudonym. Since I had already posted, some people were starting to send me direct messages on Twitter like, "OMG, the guy you're posting about now is the top scientist in China so you're going to have a lot of backlash."
Then I decided I'll just continue doing this. I found a total of around 50 papers from this group and posted all of them on PubPeer. That story quickly became a very popular story in China: number two on Sina Weibo, a social media site in China.
I was surprised it wasn't suppressed by the Chinese government, it was actually allowed by journalists that were writing about it, and I didn't experience a lot of backlash because of that.
Actually the Chinese doctor wrote me an email saying that he appreciated my feedback and that he would look into these cases. He sent a very polite email so I sent him back that I appreciated that he would look into these cases and left it there.
There are certain subjects that I know when we write about them in Retraction Watch, they have tended in the past to really draw a lot of ire. I'm thinking anything about vaccines and autism, anything about climate change, stem cell research.
For a while that last subject has sort of died down. But now it's become a highly politically charged atmosphere. Do you feel that this pandemic has raised the profile of people such as yourself who we refer to as scientific sleuths, people who look critically and analytically at new research?
Yeah, some people. But I'm also worried that some people who are great scientists and have shown a lot of critical thinking are being attacked because of that. If you just look at what happened to Dr. Fauci, I think that's a prime example. Where somebody who actually is very knowledgeable and very cautious of new science has not been widely accepted as a great leader, in our country at least. It's sad to see that. I'm just worried how long he will be at his position, to be honest.
We noticed a big uptick in our traffic in the last few days to Retraction Watch and it turns out it was because someone we wrote about a number of years ago has really hopped on the bandwagon to try and discredit and even try to have Dr. Fauci fired.
It's one of these reminders that the way people think about scientists has, in many cases, far more to do with their own history or their own perspective going in than with any reality or anything about the science. It's pretty disturbing, but it's not a new thing. This has been happening for a while.
You can go back and read sociologists of science from 50-60 years ago and see the same thing, but I just don't think that it's in the same way that it is now, maybe in part because of social media.
I've been personally very critical about several studies, but this is the first time I've experienced being attacked by trolls and having some nasty websites written about me. It is very disturbing to read.
"I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it."
It is. Yet you have been a fearless and vocal critic of some very high-profile papers, like the infamous French study about hydroxychloroquine.
Right, the paper that came out was immediately tweeted by the President of the United States. At first I thought it was great that our President tweeted about science! I thought that was a major breakthrough. I took a look at this paper.
It had just come out that day, I believe. The first thing I noticed is that it was accepted within 24 hours of being submitted to the journal. It was actually published in a journal where one of the authors is the editor-in-chief, which is a huge conflict of interest, but it happens.
But in this particular case, there were also a lot of flaws with the study and that, I think, should have been caught during peer review. The paper was first published on a preprint server and then within 24 hours or so it was published in that paper, supposedly after peer review.
There were very few changes between the preprint version and the peer review paper. There were just a couple of extra lines, extra sentences added here and there, but it wasn't really, I think, critically looked at. Because there were a lot of things that I thought were flaws.
Just to go over a couple of them. This paper showed supposedly that people who were treated with hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were doing much better by clearing their virus much faster than people who were not treated with these drugs.
But if you look carefully at the paper there were a couple of people who were left out of the study. So they were treated with hydroxychloroquine, but they were not shown in the end results of the paper. All six people who were treated with the drug combination were clearing the virus within six days, but there were a couple of others who were left out of the study. They also started the drug combination, but they stopped taking the drugs for several reasons and three of them were admitted to the intensive care, one died, one had some side effects and one apparently walked out of the hospital.
They were left out of the study but they were actually not doing very well with the drug combination. It's not very good science if you leave out people who don't do very well with your drug combination in your study. That was one of my biggest critiques of the paper.
What struck us about that case was, in addition to what you, of course, mentioned, the fact that Trump tweeted it and was talking about hydroxychloroquine, was that it seemed to be a perfect example of, "well, it was in a peer review journal." Yeah, it was a preprint first, but, well, it's a peer review journal. And yet, as you point out, when you look at the history of the paper, it was accepted in 24 hours.
If you talk to most scientists, the actual act of a peer review, once you sit down to do it and can concentrate, a good one takes, again, these are averages, but four hours, a half a day is not unreasonable. So you had to find three people who could suddenly review this paper. As you pointed out, it was in a journal where one of the authors was editor.
Then some strange things also happened, right? The society that actually publishes the journal, they came out with a statement saying this wasn't up to our standards, which is odd. Then Elsevier came in, they're the ones who are actually contracted to publish the journal for the society. They said, basically, "Oh, we're going to look into this now too."
It just makes you wonder what happened before the paper was actually published. All the people who were supposed to have been involved in doing the peer review or checking on it are clearly very distraught about what actually happened. It's that scene from Casablanca, "I'm shocked, shocked there's gambling going on here." And then, "Your winnings, sir."
And I don't actually blame the public, I don't blame reporters for getting a bit confused about what it all means and what they should trust. I don't think trust is a binary any more than anything else is a binary. I don't think that something that's been peer-reviewed is perfect and something that hasn't been peer reviewed, you should never bother reading it. I think everything is much more gray.
Yet we've turned things into a binary. Even if you go back before coronavirus, coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you, red wine, chocolate, all the rest of it. A lot of that is because of this sort of binary construct of the world for journalists, frankly, for scientists that need to get their next grants. And certainly for the general public, they want answers.
On the one hand, if I had to choose what group of experts, or what field of human endeavor would I trust with finding the answer to a pandemic like this, or to any crisis, it would absolutely be scientists. Hands down. This is coming from someone who writes about scientific fraud.
But on the other hand, that means that if scientists aren't clear about what they don't know and about the nuances and about what the scientific method actually allows us to do and learn, that just sets them up for failure. It sets people like Dr. Fauci up for failure.
It sets up any public health official who has a discussion about models. There's a famous saying: "All models are wrong, but some are useful."
Just because the projections change, it's not proof of wrongness, it's not proof that the model is fatally flawed. In fact, I'd be really concerned if the projections didn't change based on new information. I would love it if this whole episode did lead to a better understanding of the scientific process and how scientific publishing fits into that — and doesn't fit into it.
Yes, I'm with you. I'm very worried that the general audience's perspective is based on maybe watching too many movies where the scientist comes up with a conclusion one hour into the movie when everything is about to fail. Like that scene in Contagion where somebody injects, I think, eight monkeys, and one of the monkeys survives and boom we have the vaccine. That's not really how science works. Everything takes many, many years and many, many applications where usually your first ideas and your first hypothesis turn out to be completely wrong.
Then you go back to the drawing board, you develop another hypothesis and this is a very reiterative process that usually takes years. Most of the people who watch the movie might have a very wrong idea and wrong expectations about how science works. We're living in the movie Contagion and by September, we'll all be vaccinated and we can go on and live our lives. But that's not what is going to happen. It's going to take much, much longer and we're going to have to change the models every time and change our expectations. Just because we don't know all the numbers and all the facts yet.
Generally it takes a fairly long time to change medical practice. A lot of times people see that as a bad thing. What I think that ignores, or at least doesn't take into as much account as I would, is that you don't want doctors and other health care professionals to turn on a dime and suddenly switch. Unless, of course, it turns out there was no evidence for what you were looking at.
It's a complicated situation.
Everybody wants scientists to be engineers, right?
I'm not saying engineering isn't scientific, nor am I saying that science is just completely whimsical, but there's a different process. It's a different way of looking at things and you can't just throw all the data into a big supercomputer, which is what I think a lot of people seem to want us to do, and then the obvious answer will come out on the other side.
No. It's true and a lot of engineers suddenly feel their inherent need to solve this as a problem. They're not scientists and it's not building a bridge over a big river. But we're dealing with something that is very hard to solve because we don't understand the problem yet. I think scientists are usually first analyzing the problem and trying to understand what the problem actually is before you can even think about a solution.
I think we're still at the understanding the problem phase.
Exactly. And going back to the French group paper, that promised such a result and that was interpreted as such by a lot of people including presidents, but it's a very rare thing to find a medication that will have a 100% curation rate. That's something that I wish the people would understand better. We all want that to happen, but it's very unlikely and very unprecedented in the best of times.
I would second that and also say that the world needs to better value the work that people like Elisabeth and others are doing. Because we're not going to get to a better answer if we're not rigorous about scrutinizing the literature and scrutinizing the methodology and scrutinizing the results.
"I quit my job to be able to do this work."
It's a relatively new phenomenon that you're able to do this at any scale at all, and even now it's at a very small scale. Elisabeth mentioned PubPeer and I'm a big fan — also full disclosure, I'm on their board of directors as a volunteer — it's a very powerful engine for readers and journal editors and other scientists to discuss issues.
And Elisabeth has used it really, really well. I think we need to start giving credit to people like that. And, also creating incentives for that kind of work in a way that science hasn't yet.
Yeah. I quit my job to be able to do this work. It's really hard to combine it with a job either in academia or industry because we're looking for or criticizing papers and it's hard when you are still employed to do that.
I try to make it about the papers and do it in a polite way, but still it's a very hard job to do if you have a daytime job and a position and a career to worry about. Because if you're critical of other academics, that could actually mean the end of your career and that's sad. They should be more open to polite criticism.
And for the general public, if you're reading a newspaper story or something online about a single study and it doesn't mention any other studies that have said the same thing or similar, or frankly, if it doesn't say anything about any studies that contradicted it, that's probably also telling you something.
Say you're looking at a huge painting of a shoreline, a beach, and a forest. Any single study is just a one-centimeter-by-one-centimeter square of any part of that canvas. If you just look at that, you would either think it was a painting of the sea, of a beach, or of the forest. It's actually all three of those things.
We just need to be patient, and that's very challenging to us as human beings, but we need to take the time to look at the whole picture.
DISCLAIMER: Neither Elisabeth Bik nor Ivan Oransky was compensated for participation in The Pandemic Issue. While the magazine's editors suggested broad topics for discussion, consistent with Bik's and Oransky's work, neither they nor the magazine's underwriters had any influence on their conversation.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
WENDY SCHMIDT is a philanthropist and investor who has spent more than a dozen years creating innovative non-profit organizations to solve pressing global environmental and human rights issues. Recognizing the human dependence on sustaining and protecting our planet and its people, Wendy has built organizations that work to educate and advance an understanding of the critical interconnectivity between the land and the sea. Through a combination of grants and investments, Wendy's philanthropic work supports research and science, community organizations, promising leaders, and the development of innovative technologies. Wendy is president of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which she co-founded with her husband Eric in 2006. They also co-founded Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures.
Editors: The pandemic has altered the course of human history and the nature of our daily lives in equal measure. How has it affected the focus of your philanthropy across your organizations? Have any aspects of the crisis in particular been especially galvanizing as you considered where to concentrate your efforts?
Wendy: The COVID-19 pandemic has made the work of our philanthropy more relevant than ever. If anything, the circumstances of this time have validated the focus we have had for nearly 15 years. We support the need for universal access to clean, renewable energy, healthy food systems, and the dignity of human labor and self-determination in a world of interconnected living systems on land and in the Ocean we are only beginning to understand.
When you consider the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 virus on people who are poorly paid, poorly housed, with poor nutrition and health care, and exposed to unsafe conditions in the workplace—you see clearly how the systems that have been defining how we live, what we eat, who gets healthcare and what impacts the environment around us—need to change.
"This moment has propelled broad movements toward open publication and open sharing of data and samples—something that has always been a core belief in how we support and advance science."
If the pandemic teaches us anything, we learn what resilience looks like, and the essential role for local small businesses including restaurants, farms and ranches, dairies and fish markets in the long term vitality of communities. There is resonance, local economic benefit, and also accountability in these smaller systems, with shorter supply chains and less vertical integration.
The consolidation of vertically integrated business operations for the sake of global efficiency reveals its essential weakness when supply chains break down and the failure to encourage local economic centers leads to intense systemic disruption and the possibility of collapse.
Editors: For scientists, one significant challenge has been figuring out how to continue research, if at all, during this time of isolation and distancing. Yet, your research vessel Falkor, of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, is still on its expedition exploring the Coral Sea Marine Park in Australia—except now there are no scientists onboard. What was the vessel up to before the pandemic hit? Can you tell us more about how they are continuing to conduct research from afar now and how that's going?
Wendy: We have been extremely fortunate at Schmidt Ocean Institute. When the pandemic hit in March, our research vessel, Falkor, was already months into a year-long program to research unexplored deep sea canyons around Australia and at the Great Barrier Reef. We were at sea, with an Australian science group aboard, carrying on with our mission of exploration, discovery and communication, when we happened upon what we believe to be the world's longest animal—a siphonophore about 150 feet long, spiraling out at a depth of about 2100 feet at the end of a deeper dive in the Ningaloo Canyon off Western Australia. It was the kind of wondrous creature we find so often when we conduct ROV dives in the world's Ocean.
For more than two months this year, Falkor was reportedly the only research vessel in the world carrying on active research at sea. Once we were able to dock and return the science party to shore, we resumed our program at sea offering a scheduled set of now land-based scientists in lockdown in Australia the opportunity to conduct research remotely, taking advantage of the vessel's ship to shore communications, high resolution cameras and live streaming video. It's a whole new world, and quite wonderful in its own way.
Editors: Normally, 10–15 scientists would be aboard such a vessel. Is "remote research" via advanced video technology here to stay? Are there any upsides to this "new normal"?
Wendy: Like all things pandemic, remote research is an adaptation for what would normally occur. Since we are putting safety of the crew and guest scientists at the forefront, we're working to build strong remote connections between our crew, land based scientists and the many robotic tools on board Falkor. There's no substitute for in person work, but what we've developed during the current cruise is a pretty good and productive alternative in a crisis. And what's important is that this critical scientific research into the deep sea is able to continue, despite the pandemic on land.
Editors: Speaking of marine expeditions, you've sponsored two XPRIZE competitions focused on ocean health. Do you think challenge prizes could fill gaps of the global COVID-19 response, for example, to manufacture more testing kits, accelerate the delivery of PPE, or incentivize other areas of need?
Wendy: One challenge we are currently facing is that innovations don't have the funding pathway to scale, so promising ideas by entrepreneurs, researchers, and even major companies are being developed too slowly. Challenge prizes help raise awareness for problems we are trying to solve and attract new people to help solve those problems by giving them a pathway to contribute.
One idea might be for philanthropy to pair prizes and challenges with an "advanced market commitment" where the government commits to a purchase order for the innovation if it meets a certain test. That could be deeply impactful for areas like PPE and the production of testing kits.
Editors: COVID-19 testing, especially, has been sorely needed, here in the U.S. and in developing countries as well as low-income communities. That's why we're so intrigued by your Schmidt Science Fellows grantee Hal Holmes and his work to repurpose a new DNA technology to create a portable, mobile test for COVID-19. Can you tell us about that work and how you are supporting it?
Wendy: Our work with Conservation X Labs began years ago when our foundation was the first to support their efforts to develop a handheld DNA barcode sensor to help detect illegally imported and mislabeled seafood and timber products. The device was developed by Hal Holmes, who became one of our Schmidt Science Fellows and is the technical lead on the project, working closely with Conservation X Labs co-founders Alex Deghan and Paul Bunje. Now, with COVID-19, Hal and team have worked with another Schmidt Science Fellow, Fahim Farzardfard, to repurpose the technology—which requires no continuous power source, special training, or a lab—to serve as a mobile testing device for the virus.
The work is going very well, manufacturing is being organized, and distribution agreements with hospitals and government agencies are underway. You could see this device in use within a few months and have testing results within hours instead of days. It could be especially useful in low-income communities and developing countries where access to testing is challenging.
Editors: How is Schmidt Futures involved in the development of information platforms that will offer productive solutions?
Wendy: In addition to the work I've mentioned, we've also funded the development of tech-enabled tools that can help the medical community be better prepared for the ongoing spike of COVID cases. For example, we funded EdX and Learning Agency to develop an online training to help increase the number of medical professionals who can operate ventilators. The first course is being offered by Harvard University, and so far, over 220,000 medical professionals have enrolled. We have also invested in informational platforms that make it easier to contain the spread of the disease, such as our work with Recidiviz to model the impact of COVID-19 in prisons and outline policy steps states could take to limit the spread.
Information platforms can also play a big part pushing forward scientific research into the virus. For example, we've funded the UC Santa Cruz Virus Browser, which allows researchers to examine each piece of the virus and see the proteins it creates, the interactions in the host cell, and — most importantly — almost everything the recent scientific literature has to say about that stretch of the molecule.
Editors: The scale of research collaboration and the speed of innovation today seem unprecedented. The whole science world has turned its attention to combating the pandemic. What positive big-picture trends do you think or hope will persist once the crisis eventually abates?
Wendy: As in many areas, the COVID crisis has accelerated trends in the scientific world that were already well underway. For instance, this moment has propelled broad movements toward open publication and open sharing of data and samples—something that has always been a core belief in how we support and advance science.
We believe collaboration is an essential ingredient for progress in all areas. Early in this pandemic, Schmidt Futures held a virtual gathering of 160 people across 70 organizations in philanthropy, government, and business interested in accelerating research and response to the virus, and thought at the time, it's pretty amazing this kind of thing doesn't go all the time. We are obviously going to go farther together than on our own...
My husband, Eric, has observed that in the past two months, we've all catapulted 10 years forward in our use of technology, so there are trends already underway that are likely accelerated and will become part of the fabric of the post-COVID world—like working remotely; online learning; increased online shopping, even for groceries; telemedicine; increasing use of AI to create smarter delivery systems for healthcare and many other applications in a world that has grown more virtual overnight.
"Our deepest hope is that out of these alarming and uncertain times will come a renewed appreciation for the tools of science, as they help humans to navigate a world of interconnected living systems, of which viruses are a large part."
We fully expect these trends to continue and expand across the sciences, sped up by the pressures of the health crisis. Schmidt Ocean Institute and Schmidt Futures have been pressing in these directions for years, so we are pleased to see the expansions that should help more scientists work productively, together.
Editors: Trying to find the good amid a horrible crisis, are there any other new horizons in science, philanthropy, and/or your own work that could transform our world for the better that you'd like to share?
Wendy: Our deepest hope is that out of these alarming and uncertain times will come a renewed appreciation for the tools of science, as they help humans to navigate a world of interconnected living systems, of which viruses are a large part. The more we investigate the Ocean, the more we look deeply into what lies in our soils and beneath them, the more we realize we do not know, and moreover, how vulnerable humanity is to the forces of the natural world.
Philanthropy has an important role to play in influencing how people perceive our place in the world and understand the impact of human activity on the rest of the planet. I believe it's philanthropy's role to take risks, to invest early in innovative technologies, to lead where governments and industry aren't ready to go yet. We're fortunate at this time to be able to help those working on tools to better diagnose and treat the virus, and to invest in those working to improve information systems, so citizens and policy makers can make better decisions that can reduce impacts on families and institutions.
From all we know, this isn't likely to be the last pandemic the world will see. It's been said that a crisis comes before change, and we would hope that we can play a role in furthering the work to build systems that are resilient—in information, energy, agriculture and in all the ways we work, recreate, and use the precious resources of our planet.
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]