American Science is Built to Confront a Pandemic

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

When any of us, or those we care about, are diagnosed with a rare disease we naturally turn to an expert for help. Providing such expert advice is at the heart of a long-standing partnership between America and its colleges and universities. As this is written, a rare disease (COVID-19) has emerged on a global scale. Successfully confronting it will take a set of experts, most of them based at our country’s great research universities

Lost amid the public furor about the politicization of the novel coronavirus is the fact that American science is particularly suited to tackle this emerging pandemic; in this country, scientific research is not controlled by any central authority. Instead, it is outsourced to research universities and the research itself is curiosity-driven, not hierarchically mandated. Said another way, there is no fixed research agenda and no government entity speaks for American science. This almost invisible organizational structure is little known, but its existence provides an opportunity for immediate expert crisis intervention. The world is in need of expert medical care and research universities are in a position to provide it.

Understanding this invisible organizational chart requires a bit of a history lesson. Toward the end of World War II, a scientific advisor to Franklin Roosevelt named Vannevar Bush submitted a proposal called Science: The Endless Frontier which created the foundation for a federally funded research enterprise. The document provided that individual scientists or academic teams would set their own research agendas, resisting the establishment of any formal arm to evaluate, dictate or disseminate scientific research. Bush justified this structure as a way to keep politics out of science, and his approach became embedded in American research universities where professors and their graduate students are given wide latitude to pursue new scientific knowledge. As a result, academic scientists are able to assemble laboratories funded by governmental and non-governmental sources that are larger than anywhere else in the world. Other governmental policies mandate the transfer of government-funded technology to the best vehicle for its commercialization. This creates a set of powerful public-private partnerships that speeds up the time it takes for scientific breakthroughs to reach the public.

Bush was heavily influenced by the success of the Manhattan Project, where an enormous multi-disciplinary team was assembled from American research universities and scientists fleeing the Nazis. The result was an atomic bomb that quickly ended World War II. A similar effort between 1957 and 1969 put a man on the moon. Now, the first pandemic in modern times presents another enormous challenge to the scientific community, most of which are housed in American research universities.

The response illustrates the virtues of curiosity-driven research. As it turns out, scientists throughout the country have been working on many of the issues associated with the threat of a pandemic notwithstanding the fact that such a threat has not become a critical political priority until recently. For example, the University of Nebraska established a special bio-containment unit after 9/11 that was first used during the Ebola epidemic. It became the first place to turn to when COVID-19 came to the U.S.

At a secret location on the campus of the University of North Carolina, a little-known laboratory that has been studying coronaviruses for over thirty years received samples of SARS-CoV-2 in early February. Thus began an around-the-clock effort aimed at creating a short term fix to slow the spread or ease the symptoms of the virus. Other labs at the University of Maryland and Vanderbilt University, to name only a few, have joined in the effort; as this is being written, over 100 promising approaches are being analyzed and tested. One approach is already in the field in hard-hit areas of China with preliminary results expected by April. Officials at the Federal level explain that the strategy is to head down parallel paths with multiple approaches until both immediate and longer-term solutions emerge. 

Beyond these specific examples, the decision to make American scientific research curiosity-driven by outsourcing it largely to research universities is paying huge dividends. An avalanche of research ranging from the impact of travel bans on the spread of the disease to an analysis of the molecular structure of the disease is pouring in. To date, 261 papers have already been published in journals and another 283 papers have appeared in what is called preprint repositories, a mechanism to get research vetted on a preliminary basis and out to the public even before they have been submitted for peer review. Two of the major preprint repositories are each receiving an average of 10 papers a day on some aspect of the novel coronavirus.

When the dust finally settles and novel coronavirus is no longer so novel, perhaps more Americans will understand why scientific research matters and why they, as taxpayers, receive a great return on their investment in science.


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