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.
American politics has no shortage of ailments. Many do not feel like their voice matters amid the money and influence amassed by corporations and wealthy donors. Many doubt whether elected officials and bureaucrats can or even want to effectively solve problems and respond to citizens' needs. Many feel divided both physically and psychologically, and uncomfortable (if not scared) at the prospect of building new connections across lines of difference.
Strengthening American democracy requires countering these trends. New collaborations between university researchers and community leaders such as elected officials, organizers, and nonprofit directors can help. These collaborations can entail everything from informal exchanges to co-led projects.
But there's a catch. They require that people with diverse forms of knowledge and lived experience, who are often strangers, choose to engage with one another. We know that strangers often remain strangers.
That's why a science of collaboration that centers the inception question is vital: When do diverse individuals choose to work together in the first place? How can we design institutions that encourage beneficial collaborations to arise and thrive? And what outcomes can occur?
How Collaborations Between Researchers and Community Leaders Can Help
First consider the feeling of powerlessness. Individual action becomes more powerful when part of a collective. For ordinary citizens, voting and organizing are arguably the two most impactful forms of collective action, and as it turns out there is substantial research on how to increase turnout and how to build powerful civic associations. Collaborations between researchers familiar with that work and organizers and nonprofit leaders familiar with a community's context can be especially impactful.
For example, in 2019, climate organizers with a nonpartisan group in North Carolina worked with a researcher who studies organizing to figure out how to increase volunteer commitment—that is, how to transform volunteers who only attend meetings into leaders who take responsibility for organizing others. Together, they designed strategies that made sense for the local area. Once implemented, these strategies led to a 161% year-over-year increase in commitment. More concretely, dozens of newly empowered volunteers led events to raise awareness of how climate change was impacting the local community and developed relationships with local officials and business owners, all while coming to see themselves as civic leaders. This experience also fed back into the researcher's work, motivating the design of future studies.
Or consider how researchers and local elected officials can collaborate and respond to novel challenges like the coronavirus. For instance, in March 2020, one county in Upstate New York suddenly had to figure out how to provide vital services like internet and health screenings for residents who could no longer visit shuttered county offices. They turned to a researcher who knew about research on mobile vans. Together, they spoke about the benefits and costs of mobile vans in general, and then segued into a more specific conversation about what routings and services would make sense in this specific locale. Their collaboration entailed a few conversations leading up to the county's decision, and in the end the county received helpful information and the researcher learned about new implementation challenges associated with mobile vans.
In April, legislators in another Upstate New York county realized they needed honest, if biting, feedback from local mayors about their response to the pandemic. They collaborated with researchers familiar with survey methodology. County legislators supplied the goals and historical information about fraught county–city relationships, while researchers supplied evidence-based techniques for conducting interviews in delicate contexts. These interviews ultimately revealed mayors' demand for more up-to-date coronavirus information from the county and also more county-led advocacy at the state level.
To be sure, there are many situations in which elected officials' lack of information is not the main hurdle. Rather, they need an incentive to act. Yet this is another situation in which collaborations between university researchers and community leaders focused on evidence-based, context-appropriate approaches to organizing and voter mobilization could produce needed pressure.
This brings me to the third way in which collaborations between researchers and community leaders can strengthen American democracy. They entail diverse people working to develop a common interest by building new connections across lines of difference. This is a core democratic skill that withers in the absence of practice.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with.
The Science of Collaboration
The previous examples have one thing in common: a collaboration actually took place.
Yet that often does not happen. While there are many reasons why collaborations between diverse people should arise we know far less about when they actually do arise.
This is why a science of collaboration centered on inception is essential. Some studies have already revealed new insights. One thing we've learned is that credibility is important, but often not enough. By credibility, I mean that people are more likely to collaborate when they perceive each other to be trustworthy and have useful information or skills to share. Potential collaborators can signal their credibility by, for instance, identifying shared values and mentioning relevant previous experiences. One study finds that policymakers are more interested in collaborating with researchers who will share findings that are timely and locally relevant—that is, the kind that are most useful to them.
In addition to credibility, we've learned that potential collaborators also care about whether others will be responsive to their goals and constraints, understand their point of view, and will be enjoyable to interact with. For instance, potential collaborators can explicitly acknowledge that they know the other person is busy, or start with a question rather than a statement to indicate being interested. One study finds that busy nonprofit leaders are more likely to collaborate with researchers who explicitly state that (a) they are interested in learning about the leaders' expertise, and (b) they will efficiently share what they know. Another study underscores that potential collaborators need to feel like they know how to interact—that is, to feel like they have a "script" for what's appropriate to say during the interaction.
We're also learning that institutions (such as matchmaking organizations) can reduce uncertainty about credibility and relationality, and also help collaborations start off on the right foot. They are a critical avenue for connecting strangers. For instance, brokers can use techniques that increase the likelihood that diverse people feel comfortable sharing what they know, raising concerns, and being responsive to others.
A science of collaboration that centers the inception question is helpful on two levels. First, it provides an evidence base for how to effectively connect diverse people to work together. Second, when applied to university researchers and community leaders, it can produce collaborations that strengthen American democracy. Moreover, these collaborations are easily implemented, especially when informal and beginning as a conversation or two (as in the mobile vans example).
Existing research on the science of collaboration has already yielded actionable insights, yet we still have much to learn. For instance, we need to better understand the latent demand. Interviews that ask a wide variety of community leaders and researchers who have not previously collaborated to talk about why doing so might be helpful would be enlightening. They could also be a useful antidote to the narrative of conflict that often permeates discussions about the role of science in American politics.
In addition, we need to learn more about the downstream consequences of these collaborations, such as whether new networks arise that include colleagues of the initial collaborators. Here, it would be helpful to study the work of brokers – how they introduce people to each other, how much they follow up, and the impact of those decisions.
Ultimately, expanding the evidence base of the science of collaboration, and then directly applying what we learn, will provide important new and actionable avenues for strengthening American democracy.
[Editor's Note: To read other articles in this special magazine issue, visit the beautifully designed e-reader version.]
No human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when he’s 105?
At the Louisiana Senior Games in November 2021, 105-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge became the oldest woman to run 100 meters in an official competition, qualifying her for this year's National Senior Games. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was the only competitor in the race for people 105 and older. In this Leaps.org video, I interview Hawkins about her lifestyle habits over the decades. Then I ask Steven Austad, a pioneer in studying the mechanisms of aging, for his scientific insights into how those aspiring to become super-agers might follow in Hawkins' remarkable footsteps.
Following the Footsteps of a 105-Year-Old SprinterNo human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when ...
A new virus has emerged and stoked fears of another pandemic: monkeypox. Since May 2022, it has been detected in 29 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico among international travelers and their close contacts. On a worldwide scale, as of June 30, there have been 5,323 cases in 52 countries.
The good news: An existing vaccine can go a long way toward preventing a catastrophic outbreak. Because monkeypox is a close relative of smallpox, the same vaccine can be used—and it is about 85 percent effective against the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Also on the plus side, monkeypox is less contagious with milder illness than smallpox and, compared to COVID-19, produces more telltale signs. Scientists think that a “ring” vaccination strategy can be used when these signs appear to help with squelching this alarming outbreak.
How it’s transmitted
Monkeypox spreads between people primarily through direct contact with infectious sores, scabs, or bodily fluids. People also can catch it through respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of June 30, there have been 396 documented monkeypox cases in the U.S., and the CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to mobilize additional personnel and resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is aiming to boost testing capacity and accessibility. No Americans have died from monkeypox during this outbreak but, during the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 to date), Africa has documented 12,141 cases and 363 deaths from monkeypox.
Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
A person infected with monkeypox typically has symptoms—for instance, fever and chills—in a contagious state, so knowing when to avoid close contact with others makes it easier to curtail than COVID-19.
Advantages of ring vaccination
For this reason, it’s feasible to vaccinate a “ring” of people around the infected individual rather than inoculating large swaths of the population. Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
With many infections, “it normally would make sense to everyone to vaccinate more widely,” says Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a professor and director of the Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. However, “in this case, ring vaccination may be sufficient to contain the outbreak and also minimize the rare, but potentially serious side effects of the smallpox/monkeypox vaccine.”
There are two licensed smallpox vaccines in the United States: ACAM2000 (live Vaccina virus) and JYNNEOS (live virus non-replicating). The ACAM 2000, Van Voorhis says, is the old smallpox vaccine that, in rare instances, could spread diffusely within the body and cause heart problems, as well as severe rash in people with eczema or serious infection in immunocompromised patients.
To prevent organ damage, the current recommendation would be to use the JYNNEOS vaccine, says Phyllis Kanki, a professor of health sciences in the division of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, according to a report on the CDC’s website, people with immunocompromising conditions could have a higher risk of getting a severe case of monkeypox, despite being vaccinated, and “might be less likely to mount an effective response after any vaccination, including after JYNNEOS.”
In the late 1960s, the ring vaccination strategy became part of the WHO’s mission to globally eradicate smallpox, with the last known natural case described in Somalia in 1977. Ring vaccination can also refer to how a clinical trial is designed, as was the case in 2015, when this approach was used for researching the benefits of an investigational Ebola vaccine in Guinea, Kanki says.
“Since Monkeypox spreads by close contact and we have an effective vaccine, vaccinating high-risk individuals and their contacts may be a good strategy to limit transmission,” she says, adding that privacy is an important ethical principle that comes into play, as people with monkeypox would need to disclose their close contacts so that they could benefit from ring vaccination.
Rapid identification of cases and contacts—along with their cooperation—is essential for ring vaccination to be effective. Although mass vaccination also may work, the risk of infection to most of the population remains low while supply of the JYNNEOS vaccine is limited, says Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of medicine in the Infectious Disease Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Other strategies for preventing transmission
Ideally, the vaccine should be administered within four days of an exposure, but it’s recommended for up to 14 days. The WHO also advocates more widespread vaccination campaigns in the population segment with the most cases so far: men who engage in sex with other men.
The virus appears to be spreading in sexual networks, which differs from what was seen in previously reported outbreaks of monkeypox (outside of Africa), where risk was associated with travel to central or west Africa or various types of contact with individuals or animals from those locales. There is no evidence of transmission by food, but contaminated articles in the environment such as bedding are potential sources of the virus, Deresinski says.
Severe cases of monkeypox can occur, but “transmission of the virus requires close contact,” he says. “There is no evidence of aerosol transmission, as occurs with SARS-CoV-2, although it must be remembered that the smallpox virus, a close relative of monkeypox, was transmitted by aerosol.”
Deresinski points to the fact that in 2003, monkeypox was introduced into the U.S. through imports from Ghana of infected small mammals, such as Gambian giant rats, as pets. They infected prairie dogs, which also were sold as pets and, ultimately, this resulted in 37 confirmed transmissions to humans and 10 probable cases. A CDC investigation identified no cases of human-to-human transmission. Then, in 2021, a traveler flew from Nigeria to Dallas through Atlanta, developing skin lesions several days after arrival. Another CDC investigation yielded 223 contacts, although 85 percent were deemed to be at only minimal risk and the remainder at intermediate risk. No new cases were identified.
How much should we be worried
But how serious of a threat is monkeypox this time around? “Right now, the risk to the general public is very low,” says Scott Roberts, an assistant professor and associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine. “Monkeypox is spread through direct contact with infected skin lesions or through close contact for a prolonged period of time with an infected person. It is much less transmissible than COVID-19.”
The monkeypox incubation period—the time from infection until the onset of symptoms—is typically seven to 14 days but can range from five to 21 days, compared with only three days for the Omicron variant of COVID-19. With such a long incubation, there is a larger window to conduct contact tracing and vaccinate people before symptoms appear, which can prevent infection or lessen the severity.
But symptoms may present atypically or recognition may be delayed. “Ring vaccination works best with 100 percent adherence, and in the absence of a mandate, this is not achievable,” Roberts says.
At the outset of infection, symptoms include fever, chills, and fatigue. Several days later, a rash becomes noticeable, usually beginning on the face and spreading to other parts of the body, he says. The rash starts as flat lesions that raise and develop fluid, similar to manifestations of chickenpox. Once the rash scabs and falls off, a person is no longer contagious.
“It's an uncomfortable infection,” says Van Voorhis, the University of Washington School of Medicine professor. There may be swollen lymph nodes. Sores and rash are often limited to the genitals and areas around the mouth or rectum, suggesting intimate contact as the source of spread.
Symptoms of monkeypox usually last from two to four weeks. The WHO estimated that fatalities range from 3 to 6 percent. Although it’s believed to infect various animal species, including rodents and monkeys in west and central Africa, “the animal reservoir for the virus is unknown,” says Kanki, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor.
Too often, viruses originate in parts of the world that are too poor to grapple with them and may lack the resources to invest in vaccines and treatments. “This disease is endemic in central and west Africa, and it has basically been ignored until it jumped to the north and infected Europeans, Americans, and Canadians,” Van Voorhis says. “We have to do a better job in health care and prevention all over the world. This is the kind of thing that comes back to bite us.”