National Health Board
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
When I hear the word ‘science’ it sometimes takes me back to the 9th grade, and my little hometown in upstate New York in the early 1950s. We had our first science class that year; when we reached the 10 th grade we studied biology, and then, chemistry or physics in alternate years. In New York we followed a state-set curriculum which meant that even in our tiny high school, we emerged with a better understanding of what science was than many American adults seem to have today.
The authorities who decided what I should learn must have been doing something right, for I eventually became a research scientist and an administrator leading programs in chemistry, and then inventing a new area of doctoral study -- photochemical sciences. Science took away my parents’ deadly fear of polio when I was young, added decades to our average life expectancy, and took out nation to the moon.
So I cringe every time I hear someone say “we don’t believe “science” or we don’t trust “scientists.” My first thought is either that the speaker isn’t very smart, or must have almost no education.
But I have to admit that it is also possible that the scientific community has failed to get its message across to millions of Americans. Regardless of who is at fault, we need to fix this.
Here’s a little secret: Scientific research is actually stimulating, fun, and a sport that keeps us learning forever. I used to described it to those research students as a “1 + 1 = more than 2” enterprise. What I meant was that when a serious project gets underway, neither student nor professor knows the answers.
But if they do the right experiments and keep asking the right questions, they eventually may find out, or at least contribute knowledge to a problem that will someday be solved. That’s what research scientists do. They pin nature down until she has no choice but to give up the answer.
The trick is that one has to know what to do, and how to do it, before one can start solving the problems.
Except in very rare cases, students can’t do research experiments during their first months of study. They don’t know the techniques. They are like piano players: We all know that there are many, many scales to play before a young pianist can even dream of reaching the Toledo Museum of Art’s Peristyle Theater to play Rachmaninov.
Research science can be rewarding work, but it is very demanding, anything but easy, and you get there the same way a young musician gets to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice.
Doubting is also what scientists do. They don’t take anything for granted, and for good reason: If they don’t doubt; don’t question, they will never provide reliable answers that have been tested, tested, and tested.
Even when research proves successful, that success may be interpreted in different ways. Scientists are very good at arguing theories. But all reputable scientists agree that no one can report data incorrectly and get away with it. Eventually, that will be discovered -- and their reputations destroyed. Today, some political activists are arguing that some scientists may be altering reports to make political points. Take it from me: They aren’t. Even if someone were tempted, they wouldn’t get away with it. Scientists will catch one another if they make mistakes.
But it is up to all of us to serve the truth -- and even laymen can keep an eye out for political operatives of any stripe who suggest that scientists change data, or suppress its clear meaning. They don’t. And for all of us, our nation and world’s collective health is more important than any politician.
The current pandemic is, hopefully, a once-in-a-millennium event. It would have helped had there been a single spokesperson for the collected medical opinion of the physicians in the federal government. That might have more easily helped American citizens to understand -- as best as they could -- what a viral disease was and how it worked as COVID-19 was first exploding. But sadly, that didn’t happen.
What we need is a case like this is a President who will appoint a committee of health experts, led by a spokesman that tells the truth and sends a clear message about what’s really happening.
That must be what we demand from whoever leads our nation. The federal government needs to set up a National Health Board, like the National Science Board, with a chair appointed by the President and advised by leaders in medicine from across the nation. The coronavirus may be a sort of warning shot. Yes, it is the first truly global pandemic in more than a century. But it very likely won’t be the last.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, McMaster Distinguished Professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash