Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Science & Society

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Health, Medicine, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Former epidemiologist turned vice-president of a nation turned back to science again in a ministerial capacity, shares some reflections on what he learned. 

In a short column he wrote for the British journal Nature, scientist Chen Chien-jen who became vice-president (2015) of Taiwan, returning as minister of the National Science Council in May 2020, shares the lessons. By the way, I was reminded while reading this that Taiwan "has a lower COVID-19 case rate than the 38 member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The first lesson: "Scientific training teaches us to seek out all the variables that might affect a system. My work as a minister taught me to expand that list of variables far beyond what is typical. Budgets, laws, staffing levels and more enter the picture. So do values and priorities."

The second lesson: "Science is never enough to bring about a thriving society. That takes trust, robust institutions and social cohesion. Solidarity is essential to inspire the public to comply with epidemic-prevention guidelines. Without solidarity, there cannot be effective border control, quarantine, contact tracing and isolation. The government must do its part to encourage compliance, such as paying for low-income people to get to vaccination centres and sending them free face masks and hand sanitizer."

The third lesson"Infectious and toxic agents have impacts that last for decades, so long-range investments in scientific infrastructure pay off. But action must be quick. When SARS happened so long ago, neither the public-health nor the hospital system in Taiwan was prepared. Ineffective quarantine and shut-down procedures led to infections and deaths. The ministry trained staff at major medical centres, then dispatched them to hundreds of regional hospitals, which launched training at local hospitals — establishing an island-wide protocol in just two weeks. Steps to track down sources of infection with a standard set of questions were important, as was a computerized system to find out who had travelled to hotspots. This existing infrastructure has served Taiwan well through subsequent epidemics."

The author ends with a story of what he learned about the "limitations of science and technology" as a young professor who worked on the "multiple health hazards of arsentic in drinking water, closing with "I expected it would all be straightforward." (My emphasis) One of the factors he and his colleagues hadn't counted on was the impact of economics.

This is a great read (about 5 minutes), one that explores the borerland between science and society, especially from a person whose feet have been firmly planted in both government and science.

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