COVID-19, Education, Higher Ed, News

Former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp standing up for science in pandemic

If you haven’t been keeping up with former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, a profile in last week’s issue of Chemical and Engineering News is worth your time.

Holden Thorp

After leaving Chapel Hill in 2013 Thorp served as provost of Washington University in St. Louis before becoming editor-in-chief of Science magazine last year.

Thorp, a chemist, wanted to use his editorials in the magazine to talk about the place of science in a variety of societal issues. As the piece shows, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity.

From the story:

From the start, Thorp set out to write bolder editorials than Science published in the past. He thought his topics might focus on his long-term interests, such as diversity, improving university teaching, and lab safety. One of his early editorials took on the US Environmental Protection Agency’s push to sideline science data.

It didn’t take long for Thorp to recognize that the novel coronavirus deserved his attention. In late February, his first editorial on the topic pushed for China to share its data more openly.

But Thorp wasn’t really fired up until he heard President Trump tell pharmaceutical executives that they should speed up work on a vaccine. That led to the hugely popular editorial “Do Us a Favor.” Addressing the president, Thorp wrote: “If you want something, start treating science and its principles with respect.”

Not only is it dangerous to skip important steps in the drug development process, but Trump “implies that science wouldn’t want to go fast, that we’ve been holding back for some reason,” he says to C&EN. “To say, ‘Do me a favor, speed up’ with no idea as to why things have to be done the way they have to be done is just so disrespectful.”

In an editorial last month, Thorp took the Trump administration to task for its attitude toward science and scientists at a time when it’s never been more important to listen to the experts.

While scientists are trying to share facts about the epidemic, the administration either blocks those facts or restates them with contradictions. Transmission rates and death rates are not measurements that can be changed with will and an extroverted presentation. The administration has repeatedly said—as it did last week—that virus spread in the United States is contained, when it is clear from genomic evidence that community spread is occurring in Washington state and beyond. That kind of distortion and denial is dangerous and almost certainly contributed to the federal government’s sluggish response. After 3 years of debating whether the words of this administration matter, the words are now clearly a matter of life and death.

And although the steps required to produce a vaccine could possibly be made more efficient, many of them depend on biological and chemical processes that are essential. So the president might just as well have said, “Do me a favor, hurry up that warp drive.”

I don’t expect politicians to know Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetism or the Diels-Alder chemical reaction (although I can dream). But you can’t insult science when you don’t like it and then suddenly insist on something that science can’t give on demand. For the past 4 years, President Trump’s budgets have made deep cuts to science, including cuts to funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the NIH. With this administration’s disregard for science of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the stalled naming of a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy—all to support political goals—the nation has had nearly 4 years of harming and ignoring science.

Now, the president suddenly needs science. But the centuries spent elucidating fundamental principles that govern the natural world—evolution, gravity, quantum mechanics—involved laying the groundwork for knowing what we can and cannot do. The ways that scientists accumulate and analyze evidence, apply inductive reasoning, and subject findings to scrutiny by peers have been proven over the years to give rise to robust knowledge. These processes are being applied to the COVID-19 crisis through international collaboration at breakneck, unprecedented speed; Science published two new papers earlier this month on SARS-CoV-2, and more are on the way. But the same concepts that are used to describe nature are used to create new tools. So, asking for a vaccine and distorting the science at the same time are shockingly dissonant.

Read the entire piece here.

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