Q&A with Holden Thorp: Finding Better Ways to Communicate Science
This month, Leaps.org had a chance to speak with Holden Thorp, Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of journals. We talked about the best ways to communicate science to the public, mistakes by public health officials during the pandemic, the lab leak theory, and bipartisanship for funding science research.
Before becoming editor of the Science journals, Thorp spent six years as provost of Washington University in St. Louis, where he is Rita Levi-Montalcini Distinguished University Professor and holds appointments in both chemistry and medicine. He joined Washington University after spending three decades at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he served as the UNC's 10th chancellor from 2008 through 2013.
A North Carolina native, Thorp earned a doctorate in chemistry in 1989 at the California Institute of Technology and completed postdoctoral work at Yale University. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Read his full bio here.
This conversation was lightly edited by Leaps.org for style and format.
Matt Fuchs: You're a musician. It seems like many scientists are also musicians. Is there a link between the scientist brain and the musician brain?
Holden Thorp: I think [the overlap is] relatively common. I'm still a gigging bass player. I play in the pits for lots of college musicals. I think that it takes a certain discipline and requires you to learn a lot of rules about how music works, and then you try to be creative within that. That's similar to scientific research. So it makes sense. Music is something I've been able to sustain my whole life. I wouldn't be the same person if I let it go. When you're playing, especially for a musical, where the music is challenging, you can't let your mind wander. It’s like meditation.
MF: I bet it helps to do something totally different from your editing responsibilities. Maybe lets the subconscious take care of tough problems at work.
MF: There's probably never been a greater need for clear and persuasive science communicators. Do we need more cross specialty training? For example, journalism schools prioritizing science training, and science programs that require more time learning how to communicate effectively?
HT: I think we need both. One of the challenges we've had with COVID has been, especially at the beginning, a lot of reporters who didn’t normally cover scientific topics got put on COVID—and ended up creating things that had to be cleaned up later. This isn't the last science-oriented crisis we're going to have. We've already got climate change, and we'll have another health crisis for sure. So it’d be good for journalism to be a little better prepared next time.
"Scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness."
But on the other side, maybe it's even more important that scientists learn how to communicate and how likely it is that their findings will be politicized, twisted and miscommunicated. Because one thing that surprised me is how shocked a lot of scientists have been. Every scientific issue that reaches into public policy becomes politicized: climate change, evolution, stem cells.
Once one side decided to be cautious about the pandemic, you could be certain the other side was going to decide not to do that. That's not the fault of science. That’s just life in a political world. That, I think, caught people off guard. They weren't prepared to shape and process their messages in a way that accounted for that—and for the way that social media has intensified all of this.
MF: Early in the pandemic, there was a lack of clarity about public health recommendations, as you’d expect with a virus we hadn’t seen before. Should public officials and scientists have more humility in similar situations in the future? Public officials need to be authoritative for their guidance to be followed, so how do they lead a crisis response while displaying humility about what we don't know?
HS: I think scientists are people who like to have the answer. It's very tempting and common for scientists to kind of oversell what we know right now, while not doing as much as we should to remind people that science is a self-correcting process. And when we fail to do that – after we’ve collected more data and need to change how we're interpreting it – the people who want to undermine us have a perfect weapon to use against us. It's challenging. But I agree that scientists are human beings who have ego and bravado and every other human weakness.
For example, we wanted to tell everybody that we thought the vaccines would provide sterilizing immunity against infection. Well, we don't have too many other respiratory viruses where that's the case. And so it was more likely that we were going to have what we ended up with, which is that the vaccines were excellent in preventing severe disease and death. It would have been great if they provided sterilizing immunity and abruptly ended the pandemic a year ago. But it was overly optimistic to think that was going to be the case in retrospect.
MF: Both in terms of how science is communicated and received by the public, do we need to reform institutions or start new ones to instill the truth-seeking values that are so important to appreciating science?
HS: There are a whole bunch of different factors. I think the biggest one is that the social media algorithms reward their owners financially when they figure out how to keep people in their silos. Users are more likely to click on things that they agree with—and that promote conflict with people that they disagree with. That has caused an acceleration in hostilities that attend some of these disagreements.
But I think the other problem is that we haven’t found a way to explain things to people when it’s not a crisis. So, for example, a strong indicator of whether someone who might otherwise be vaccine hesitant decided to get their vaccine is if they understood how vaccines worked before the pandemic started. Because if you're trying to tell somebody that they're wrong if they don't get a vaccine, at the same time you're trying to explain how it works, that's a lot of explaining to do in a short period of time.
Lack of open-mindedness is a problem, but another issue is that we need more understanding of these issues baked into the culture already. That's partly due the fact that there hasn't been more reform in K through 12 and college teaching. And that scientists are very comfortable talking to each other, and not very comfortable talking to people who don't know all of our jargon and have to be persuaded to spend time listening to and thinking about what we're trying to tell them.
"We're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories."
MF: You mentioned silos. There have been some interesting attempts in recent years to do “both sides journalism,” where websites like AllSides put different views on high profile issues side-by-side. Some people believe that's how the news should be reported. Should we let people see and decide for themselves which side is the most convincing?
HS: It depends if we're talking about science. On scientific issues, when they start, there's legitimate disagreement about among scientists. But eventually, things go back and forth, and people compete with each other and work their way to the answer. At some point, we reach more of a consensus.
For example, on climate change, I think it's gotten to the point now where it's irresponsible, if you're writing a story about climate change, to run a quote from somebody somewhere who's still—probably because of their political views—clinging to the idea that anthropogenic global warming is somehow not damaging the planet.
On things that aren't decided yet, that makes sense to run both. It's more a question of judgment of the journalists. I don't think the solution to it is put stark versions of each side, side-by-side and let people choose. The whole point of journalism is to inform people. If there's a consensus on something, that's part of what you're supposed to be informing them about.
MF: What about reporting on perspectives about the lab leak theory at various times during the pandemic?
HS: We’re the outlet that ran the letter that really restarted the whole debate. A bunch of well-known scientists said we should consider the lab leak theory more carefully. And in the aftermath of that, a bunch of those scientists who signed that letter concluded that the lab leak was very, very unlikely. Interestingly, publishing that letter actually drove us to more of a consensus. I would say now, we're almost to the point where clinging to the lab leak idea is close to being a fringe idea that almost doesn't need to be included in stories. But I would say there's been a lot of evolution on that over the last year since we ran that letter.
MF: Let's talk about bipartisanship in Congress. Research funding for the National Institutes of Health was championed for years by influential Republicans who supported science to advance health breakthroughs. Is that changing? Maybe especially with Sen. Roy Blunt retiring? Has bipartisanship on science funding been eroded by political battles during COVID?
HS: I'm optimistic that that won't be the case. Republican Congresses have usually been good for science funding. And that's because (former Sen.) Arlen Specter and Roy Blunt are two of the political figures who have pushed for science funding over the last couple decades. With Blunt retiring, we don't know who's going to step in for him. That's an interesting question. I hope there will be Republican champions for science funding.
MF: Is there too much conservatism baked into how we research new therapies and bring them to people who are sick, bench-to-bedside? I'm thinking of the criticisms that NIH or the FDA are overly bureaucratic. Are you hopeful about ARPA-H, President Biden’s proposed new agency for health innovation?
HS: I think the challenge hasn't been cracked by the federal government. Maybe DARPA has done this outside of health science, but within health science, the federal government has had limited success at funding things that can be applied quickly, while having overwhelming success at funding basic research that eventually becomes important in applications. Can they do it the other way around? They’ll need people running ARPA-H who are application first. It’s ambitious. The way it was done in Operation Warp Speed is all the money was just given to the companies. If the hypothesis on ARPA-H is for the federal government to actually do what Moderna and BioNTech did for the vaccine, themselves, that's a radical idea. It's going to require thinking very differently than the way they think about dispersing grants for basic research.
MF: You’ve written a number of bold op-eds as editor of the Science journals. Are there any op-eds you're especially proud of as voicing a view that was important but not necessarily popular?
HS: I was one of the first people to come out hard against President Trump['s handling of] the pandemic. Lots of my brothers and sisters came along afterwards. To the extent that I was able to catalyze that, I'm proud of doing it. In the last few weeks, I published a paper objecting to the splitting of the OSTP director from the science advisor and, especially, not awarding the top part of the job to Alondra Nelson, who is a distinguished scientist at black female. And instead, giving part of it to Francis Collins. He’s certainly the most important science policy figure of my lifetime, but somebody who’s been doing this now for decades. I just think we have to push as hard as we can to get a cadre of young people leading us in Washington who represent the future of the country. I think the Biden administration leaned on a lot of figures from the past. I’m pushing them hard to try to stop it.
MF: I want to circle back to the erosion of the public’s trust in experts. Most experts are specialists, and specialists operate in silos that don’t capture the complexity of scientific knowledge. Are some pushbacks to experts and concerns about the perils of specialization valid?
HS: You're on the right track there. What we need is more respect for the generalist. We can't help the fact that you have to be very specialized to do a lot of stuff. But what we need is more partnership between specialists and people who can cross fields, especially into communication and social sciences. That handoff is just not really there right now. It's hard to get a hardcore scientist to respect people who are interested in science, education and science communication, and to treat them as equals. The last two years showed that they're at least as important, if not more so.
MF: I’m grateful that you’re leading the way in this area, Holden. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your work.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
What to Know about the Fast-Spreading Delta Variant
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Previously, scientists believed it was unlikely for fully vaccinated individuals with asymptomatic infections to spread Covid-19. But the Delta variant causes the virus to make so many more copies of itself inside the body, and high viral loads have been found in the respiratory tracts of people who are fully vaccinated. This suggests that vaccinated people may be able to spread the Delta variant to some degree.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."
Frequently Asked Questions About How to Protect Yourself from the Coronavirus
What's the case-fatality rate?
Currently, the official rate is 3.4%. But this is likely way too high. China was hit particularly hard, and their healthcare system was overwhelmed. The best data we have is from South Korea. The Koreans tested 210,000 people and detected the virus in 7,478 patients. So far, the death toll is 53, which is a case-fatality rate of 0.7%. This is seven times worse than the seasonal flu (which has a case-fatality rate of 0.1%).
What's the best way to clean your hands? Soap and water? Hand sanitizer?
Soap and water is always best. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly. (The CDC recommends 20 seconds.) If soap and water are not available, the CDC says to use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. The problem with hand sanitizer, however, is that people neither use enough nor spread it over their hands properly. Also, the sanitizer should be covering your hands for 10-15 seconds, not evaporating before that.
How often should I wash my hands?
You should wash your hands after being in a public place, before you eat, and before you touch your face. It's a good idea to wash your hands after handling money and your cell phone, too.
How long can coronavirus live on surfaces?
It depends on the surface. According to the New York Times, "[C]old and flu viruses survive longer on inanimate surfaces that are nonporous, like metal, plastic and wood, and less on porous surfaces, like clothing, paper and tissue." According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, human coronaviruses "can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute." (Note: Sodium hypochlorite is bleach.)
Can Lysol wipes kill it?
Maybe not. It depends on the active ingredient. Many Lysol products use benzalkonium chloride, which the aforementioned Journal of Hospital Infection paper said was "less effective." The EPA has released a list of disinfectants recommended for use against coronavirus.
Should you wear a mask in public?
The CDC does not recommend that healthy people wear a mask in public. The benefit is likely small. However, if you are sick, then you should wear a mask to help catch respiratory droplets as you exhale.
Will pets give it to you?
That can't be ruled out. There is a documented case of human-to-canine transmission. However, an article in LiveScience explains that canine-to-human is unlikely.
Are there any "normal" things we are doing that make things worse?
Yes! Not washing your hands!!
What does it mean that previously cleared people are getting sick again? Is it the virus within or have they caught it via contamination?
It's not entirely clear. It could be that the virus was never cleared to begin with. Or it could be that the person was simply infected again. That could happen if the antibodies generated don't last long.
Will the virus go away with the weather/summer?
Quite likely, yes. Cold and flu viruses don't do well outside in summer weather. (For influenza, the warm weather causes the viral envelope to become a liquid, and it can no longer protect the virus.) That's why cold and flu season is always during the late fall and winter. However, some experts think that it is a "false hope" that the coronavirus will disappear during the summer. We'll have to wait and see.
And will it come back in the fall/winter?
That's a likely outcome. Again, we'll have to wait and see. Some epidemiologists think that COVID-19 will become seasonal like influenza.
Does dry or humid air make a difference?
Flu viruses prefer cold, dry weather. That could be true of coronaviruses, too.
What is the incubation period?
According to the World Health Organization, it's about 5 days. But it could be anywhere from 1 to 14 days.
Should you worry about sitting next to asymptomatic people on a plane or train?
It's not possible to tell if an asymptomatic person is infected or not. That's what makes asymptomatic people tricky. Just be cautious. If you're worried, treat everyone like they might be infected. Don't let them get too close or cough in your face. Be sure to wash your hands.
Should you cancel air travel planned in the next 1-2 months in the U.S.?
There are no hard and fast rules. Use common sense. Avoid hotspots of infection. If you have a trip planned to Wuhan, you might want to wait on that one. If you have a trip planned to Seattle and you're over the age of 60 and/or have an underlying health condition, you may want to hold off on that, too. If you do fly on a plane, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recommends cleaning the back of your seat and other close contact areas with antiseptic wipes. He also refuses to take anything handed out by flight attendants, since he says the biggest route of transmission comes from touching contaminated surfaces (and then touching your face).
There have been reports of an escalation of hate crimes towards Asian Americans. Can the microbiologist help illuminate that this disease has impacted all racial groups?
People might be racist, but COVID-19 is not. It can infect anyone. Older people (i.e., 60 years and older) and those with underlying health conditions are most at risk. Interestingly, young people (aged 9 and under) are minimally impacted.
To what extent/if any should toddlers -- who put everything in mouth -- avoid group classes like Gymboree?
If they get infected, toddlers will probably experience only a mild illness. The problem is if the toddler then infects somebody at higher risk, like grandpa or grandma.
Should I avoid events like concerts or theater performances if I live in a place where there is known coronavirus?
It's not an unreasonable thing to do.
Any special advice or concerns for pregnant women?
There isn't good data on this. Previous evidence, reported by the CDC, suggests that pregnant women may be more susceptible to respiratory viruses.
Advice for residents of long-term care facilities/nursing homes?
Remind the nurse or aide to constantly wash their hands.
Can we eat at Chinese restaurants? Does eating onions kill viruses? Can I take an Uber and be safe from infection?
Yes. No. Does the Uber driver or previous passengers have coronavirus? It's not possible to tell. So, treat an Uber like a public space and behave accordingly.
What public spaces should we avoid?
That's hard to say. Some people avoid large gatherings, others avoid leaving the house. Ultimately, it's going to depend on who you are and what sort of risk you're willing to take. (For example, are you young and healthy or old and sick?) I would be willing to do things that I would advise older people avoid, like going to a sporting event.
What are the differences between the L strain and the S strain?
That's not entirely clear, and it's not even clear that they are separate strains. There are some genetic differences between them. However, just because RNA viruses mutate doesn't necessarily mean that the virus will mutate to something more dangerous or unrecognizable by our immune system. The measles virus mutates, but it more or less remains the same, which is why a single vaccine could eradicate it – if enough people actually were willing to get a measles shot.
Should I wear disposable gloves while traveling?
No. If you touch something that's contaminated, the virus will be on your glove instead of your hand. If you then touch your face, you still might get sick.