The coronavirus crisis and the public exposure of science

Health personnel work in the laboratory of the Puerta de Hierro Hospital. EFE / JuanJo Martí / Archive
Health personnel work in the laboratory of the Puerta de Hierro Hospital. EFE / JuanJo Martí / Archive

Madrid Jul 3 (EFE) .- Accustomed to living silently in laboratories, science has gone to an unprecedented public exposure due to the coronavirus crisis, speeding up its time in search of a remedy and under the scrutiny of a society with high expectations , but who does not know how the scientific method works.
Few doubt at this point that the solution to the covid-19 will come from science, which is living an atypical situation that scientists and communication experts are talking about with Efe.
This crisis “has brought science to the forefront overnight. From being a topic that does not matter because there is always something much more important, such as a soccer game, to be on everyone’s lips,” says Gema Revuelta, Director of the Center for Science, Communication and Society Studies at Pompeu Fabra University.
For Revuelta “it is very good that it is in the public arena”, but in a situation like this, “in which there is so much uncertainty” that what we know about the coronavirus is much less than what we do not know, “the pressure is much larger”.
Science has its methods, protocols and times. “I always say: investigate me slowly, I’m in a hurry,” says the geneticist of the Spanish National Center for Microbiology, Lluís Montoliu, but the urgency to find a remedy seems to have changed this maxim.
In the first months “it was a scary thing, because it was a rush,” Revuelta recalls, and “in just six months a multitude of things have been discovered” about SARS-Cov-2.
But, to reach that level of knowledge, he points out, hasty studies have been done, even badly, with very small samples or rapid processes of reviewing the results by other scientists.
If “they had been made perfect, it would have taken three or four years to reach that level of knowledge”, that is why he understands that publication will accelerate in the face of a pandemic, although “the risks are also very great” and there are studies “that do not work not at all “, so this situation” cannot be established as normal “.
Two prestigious magazines such as The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine are some of those that have had to withdraw research on the coronavirus.
In the case of the first, the invalidated text on the effects of hydroxychloroquine served as the basis for the World Health Organization to suspend trials with that drug on a first occasion.
The problem with the articles in those two magazines was -explains Montoliu- that the Surgisphere company contributed fraudulent databases. “I think that has nothing to do with science, you have to be glad that it was uncovered relatively quickly. That is not science, it is fraud.”
Six months ago, the covid-19 was unknown, but its traumatic breakthrough in our lives has made any advance immediately jump to the media and social networks.
A situation that Revuelta describes as a “pressure cooker”, in which any published research spreads quickly, although not always precisely.
Montoliu refers to internet repositories in which many researchers upload their articles before formal review by other scientists. A valuable instrument because it accelerates research, but one that the media is turning to en masse during this crisis.
When a scientist reads a study “on a preprint server it quarantines it and gives it fair credibility”, however, there are journalists who were not used to dealing with them, “perhaps, that has led to turning these works into headlines that sometimes were not justified, “he considers.
Revenga also refers to the pharmaceutical company Moderna, which last May announced promising results at an early stage of its coronavirus vaccine, through a press release, “without even having made a scientific publication.”
In a society hungry for answers, certain headlines and ads raise high expectations that may not materialize and end up creating mistrust in the scientific world.
“Neither science nor scientists are infallible. Most often, experiments do not work, we have to rethink them,” says Montiliu, but “precisely because we are wrong, we are able to find the answer.”
This is all part of the scientific method, which takes time to reach conclusions, steps forward and backward, checking the results, but if the media does not report how it works, “it seems like a weakness and, it is not true, it is a greatness “, indicates the professor of Scientific Journalism of the Carlos III University Carlos Elías.
And it surprises him that the natural sciences are asked for “certainties, solutions and fast”, and if he does not give them “you are indignant”, something that does not happen with other disciplines; “I have never seen an economist asked to solve poverty.”
Carmen Rodríguez