The pandemic of 2020 has been painful for the world, and in more ways than just the number of persons worldwide that have taken ill, or by the economic downturns it’s triggered. The simplistic notion that science and scientists offer things that are to be believed or not believed is among the more insidious outcomes this pandemic has triggered. I can’t do much for those that take Norman Vincent Peale’s ideas to heart - “believe it to be true, and it will be true”.
I spent my career developing young people in one of the sciences, organic chemistry, so that they would be able to take their backgrounds in whatever direction they wished - be it research chemistry, medicine or even mortuary science. Organic chemistry is the basis of all life. You and I better hope that our physicians know some of its fundamentals.
In 1939 when World War II was already raging in Europe certain academic scientists in the US realized that the world had just paused WWI and that now the Germans were falling victim to the spells of a horrible dictator. Then, as now, there were those that believed something that was obvious wasn’t but Vannevar Bush (MIT) James Bryant Conant (Harvard), Arthur Compton (MIT) and others formed a small committee by President Roosevelt’s appointment, the intent of which was to mobilize American research in the effort to defeat Hitler. By 1940 this committee became the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). By the end of the War, more than 400 professors and programs were making major research contributions in their labs to defeating the Germans and the Japanese. Eventually, through the Manhattan project, atomic bombs were developed, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, and we had won the War.
In 1945, their job being done, the university scientists and engineers the War had attracted were told to go back to their peacetime labs and do what they had been doing. Save they couldn’t because they had become research scientists - persons that were pinching nature to get it to help them solve humankind’s still remaining problems. Bush particularly thought this resource should not be wasted. In a few months, at President Roosevelt’s direction he published ‘Science - the Endless Frontier’. This aimed at keeping the forces of physics, engineering and chemistry active. By 1950, Bush had convinced Congress, and President Truman signed the legislation that brought America the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Bush made one critical mistake in positioning NSF for the future of American science however. He downplayed research in the biological sciences. His 1945 writings relegate biology to the then small National Institutes of Health. With a strong push from then Surgeon General Thomas Parran the physicians continued to control NIH while NSF and other government agencies overplayed research in atomic energy and greatly under played research that impacted human health. In just a few months in 1945, the future of American science was directed to invest heavily in atomic weapons research in the hands of physicists and engineers, and to invest much less in research that solved basic problems of human health.
There’s no direct correlation obviously, but I maintain in more extensive writings that American research so underfunded studies in biology after the War that when humankind was hit by a virus that was so infectious, dangerous, and lethal that millions would die from it, we were no more prepared than were the citizens of Amsterdam when hit by a plague caused by pests in the 17th century.
What were we told in early 2020? To avoid exposure to the corona-19 virus, wash one’s hands, wear a mask and stay six feet away from everybody but one’s family. In the meantime those biologists, physicians, pharmaceutical companies and other research labs began a mad, intense scramble to find a pill - an antiviral and a vaccine. The few other viral diseases humankind has found mitigations for were addressed by vaccination (polio) or pill cocktails (HIV-AIDS).
America has a new president, and he has a new group of medical advisors. American’s attention, in order to control further infections of the corona-19 virus, must be directed (and the crucial word is ‘directed’) in ways that will enforce some of those 17th century dictums.
In the meantime, I’m suggesting to President elect Biden that America provide the resources for a Manhattan project on viral diseases. The president elect should immediately begin NIH preparation for a new research Institute, the National Institute of Viral Diseases (NIVD). I recommend that it be headquartered in the near Midwest - in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Ann Arbor or Rochester, MN - where large medical centers already exist, where it can actively collaborate with already existing research university scientists. NIVD’s mandate is to do the basic and applied studies in viral diseases that will protect all humankind from their ravages now and for the future. I recommend that the Country staff NIVD with research scientists from around the world, and that the universities in America open their labs to the most able students found anywhere. We need to rebuild our universities in the sciences and engineering to be the best in the world and that means they need to be open to most everybody - Indian scientists, like Kamala Harris’ mother, Andrew Yang’s Chinese relatives and ancestors - everybody that can do the work at the level we must demand. This Manhattan project has to be tightly focused at its core, but broadly enabling in its reach. The states, and here Ohio has to do some serious university restructuring, must contribute through their own state universities where research excellence is demanded. New, hard-nosed scientifically oriented leadership is needed in many state universities including those in northwest Ohio. We’ve lived with Governor Rhoades dictum that every high school graduate should have a college education within 15 miles of home long enough. The time has come to get real about what universities can do for us. Put resources in their hands, specifically in biological and chemical sciences and demand that their products will be useful for all humankind.
NIVD has one over-reaching goal. To understand viral disease to the point that Joshua Lederberg’s 1989 prediction that viruses had no specific affection for humanity becomes a thing of the past. The humankind of the future has to control viruses, or the viruses will control them. America’s resources have to be mobilized for the world to make this happen.
Douglas Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) at Bowling Green State University. An organic chemist and photochemical scientist he spent nearly 47 years teaching at Hope College, the University of New Mexico and Bowling Green. Comments are welcome.