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Listen to the science

Oct 18,2020 - Last updated at Oct 18,2020

By Lars Heikensten, Marcia McNutt and Johan Rockström

STOCKHOLM — The announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize laureates should remind us of the many contributions basic science has made to contemporary life. With COVID-19 ravaging much of humanity, and the world anxiously awaiting a breakthrough that can end the pandemic, we can no longer take science for granted. And the global science community, for its part, has risen to the occasion in unprecedented ways, not only to develop vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics, but also to improve our understanding of the virus and the best strategies to protect ourselves.

But the world is also afflicted by other crises that must not be ignored. Last month was the warmest September ever recorded. Tens of millions of people around the world are already experiencing the disastrous effects of human-induced climate change, from raging wildfires and rising sea levels to dangerous heat waves, droughts, and floods. Given current and projected greenhouse-gas emissions, more extreme symptoms of this kind are inevitable, and the increase in the frequency and intensity of many could be irreversible.

There are also deepening social and economic crises. The pandemic has battered national economies, exacerbated many forms of inequality, and sown distrust and social unrest around the world. We rely ever more on technology to conduct our daily lives, educate our children, and connect with each other, but we have yet to do enough to prevent the same technology from being used to amplify dangerous misinformation, inflame social unrest, and leave vulnerable communities even further behind.

Just as scientists and researchers have come together in unprecedented ways to fight the pandemic, so must we mobilise our best and brightest minds to tackle these other global emergencies. Like COVID-19, none can be stopped anywhere until it is stopped everywhere.

Drawing lessons from the global pandemic response and recovery efforts, our organisations will host a virtual Nobel Prize Summit next spring, with the theme “Our Planet, Our Future”. The event will bring together Nobel laureates, leading thinkers, policymakers, business innovators, and youth leaders to discuss how progress can be made against climate change, inequality and the potential harms of powerful new technologies. The ultimate goal will be to build a more resilient, sustainable future for everyone.

In our Anthropocene epoch, we acknowledge that humankind has become the single most important force acting on the planet. We also should recognise that our own encroachments on nature are the common denominator underlying today’s global crises. There is a growing body of evidence to show that not only climate change, but also disease outbreaks, are linked to human development and biodiversity loss.

As natural buffers between humans and disease-carrying animals erode, pandemics as bad as the current one could become even more likely. Because we live in such an interconnected world, what starts as a local public-health emergency can rapidly evolve into a global economic crisis with far-reaching social repercussions.

The current crisis thus should be a transformative moment for humanity. We are seeing first-hand just how much our individual futures depend on the collective health and safety of all people and of our natural world. Though science cannot provide all the answers, it clearly is the most important tool we have, not only for stopping the pandemic, but also for building resilience into our infrastructure and economy.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has offered many lessons that will be useful in preparing for a future marked by climate change, biodiversity loss, technological disruption, and inequality. For example, as we saw in many places, nature quickly “bounced back” during the early stages of the pandemic, owing to society-wide lockdowns. We also saw that the virus and its broader ramifications disproportionately burdened the most vulnerable citizens, including racial minorities and the poor. We now must consider what these unequal effects tell us about our current infrastructure and social arrangements. How might institutions be reimagined to ensure greater equity for all?

We have also learned that public trust in science is crucial, as is a basic understanding of risk and uncertainty. Without public buy-in, there will be little chance of effective political management of future crises. Misinformation, widely disseminated with the help of today’s information and communication technologies, has created an “infodemic” within the pandemic, reducing public trust in science and making it far more difficult for public-health officials to contain the virus. How can we combat false or misleading narratives and communicate scientific findings more effectively with policymakers and the public?

Although our celebrations of this year’s Nobel laureates will be held virtually, they will be no less enthusiastic than in the past. And, despite the infodemic, most people’s appreciation of science has grown during this crisis. Scientists have come together like never before to help stop COVID-19. To overcome the pandemic and meet the other global challenges we face, we must follow their example, and their lead.

 

Lars Heikensten is executive director of the Nobel Foundation. Marcia McNutt is president of the US National Academy of Sciences. Johan Rockström is director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020. www.project-syndicate.org

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