Challenges at the Intersection of Time and Science

There is a convergence happening that should concern all of us. The expectations of time and science have come to a head. Though the two ‘forces’ are changing at disparate rates, we have a tendency to conflate them. And those inclinations are creating unrealistic, and possibly dangerous, expectations for the speed at which critical breakthroughs happen. 

Time is an increasingly limited commodity and the world continues to accelerate. Rising numbers of disruptions are coming at us from known and unexpected sources and angles. It’s all adding pressure and urgency to an already frightening level of velocity. Leaders, teams, and advisors in boardrooms and strategy meetings dedicate more time than they have and feverish levels of effort to contain the forces of change and develop strategies for speeding up ways to operate, innovate, and scale. 

Scientific Development at Warp Speed

While we see evidence of these efforts to speed up across all kinds of sectors and industries, there may be no better example than the global, all-hands-on-deck “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS) development of a COVID-19 vaccination.  In early 2020, scientists began in earnest to seek a vaccine for COVID-19. Driven by a fear of the unknown and a general lack of understanding about how science gets done, most of us were enthralled with the process. We watched anxiously for any sign of progress.

Expectations were set that development and distribution would take a long time. Up until early 2020, the fastest track from vaccine development to viral sampling to approval was four years. The hope for a COVID-19 vaccine by the summer of 2021 seemed highly optimistic. Some declared it was irresponsible. Some declared it was impossible.

It was highly optimistic. But, as we learned, it was neither irresponsible nor impossible. Exactly ten months from the day the U.S. declared the spread of COVID-19 a public health emergency, a vaccine made by the Pfizer/BioNTech team became the first fully-tested vaccination approved for emergency use. They weren’t the only ones to beat the racing clock. Several more biotech companies announced their vaccines within a matter of weeks.

Operation Warp Speed proved that scientific innovation could, in fact, happen in a fraction of the time we’ve come to expect. On the one hand, that victory is incredibly promising and positive. On the other hand, it raises an important question that we have to acknowledge if we are to reconcile the convergence of time and science.

Did the accelerated vaccine development set an unrealistic expectation for future scientific discovery? 

Research Building Blocks

One of the main reasons why the development of the COVID-19 vaccines happened so quickly is because years of research on related viruses were already in place. Science had been working in the background, behind the scenes and out of our immediate view, for many years.

Social and geopolitical urgency was met with an infusion of enormous funding, providing both the impetus and the capacity for the cadre of scientific developers to develop and test multiple trials in parallel. In essence, uniquely urgent pandemic circumstances contributed to a specific environment in which labs around the world were able to take decades of science and collaborate to speed reliable research into manufacturing and production quickly.

For those unfamiliar with how scientific development happens, it might seem that this incredible pace of progress and outcome achievement is a repeatable phenomenon. (In unfortunate reality, that population of unfamiliar individuals represents a large portion of our population.) We’re led to wonder if we can expect such near-instant results the next time we need science to solve another problem. 

To make matters more difficult, news pundits, politicians, business leaders, and (sadly) many unqualified hacks tried to position themselves to speak on behalf of science. Whether out of a desire to spread hope, ego, or something else, these ‘information’ sources have contributed to an unfair and inaccurate position for science as an engine for making critical, near-real-time decisions for the global population. The drumbeat for science as a primary decision-making entity is growing. There are certainly plenty of situations in which taking this position is beneficial. And there are many that are not. I’d argue that the slogan “we are going to let the science drive our decision making” is not only meaningless, but it may also have unintended consequences.

Science is a way of thinking, not a collection of facts. By its very nature, it is an often messy, slow, and non-sequential process for testing ideas and identifying what doesn’t work, as well as what does. Done well, it factors in wide-ranging discussion and input from researchers and scientists. While the imperative related to COVID-19 was to find a ‘correct answer’ quickly, science is rarely just about accomplishing such an outcome. For this reason, we must be careful in expecting the COVID-19 vaccination approval is the model for future science.

Keeping in Mind How Science Works

Science is neither opinion nor the loudest voice. Even the most persuasive scientific findings should be held as incomplete and tentative — always subject to further investigation, revision, and dismissal in the light of new scientifically tested discoveries. The rigor of the scientific method is how we challenge assumptions, biases, and hypotheses. It informs the long list of tests that scientists and researchers conduct involve observation and experiment. Throughout the whole process, skepticism and debate are necessary. And to be determined as useful, the results must be testable, reproducible, and falsifiable. The knowledge that hasn’t met these tests is not scientific. 

Science is a journey of continuous discovery and, as such, it takes time. Today’s science represents what we know today, to the best of our capabilities. This reality does not mean that tomorrow we may not learn something new. But when we do, we must then unlearn what we believed to be true. It’s a perpetual cycle of learning, unlearning, and relearning. 

This was the process being executed decades before Operation Warp Speed became a program or an urgency. 

Keeping Science in its Place

No matter how pressing the issue, our desire to meet the challenges of accelerating change around us must not allow any religious, political, or business entity to hijack science.

Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla illustrated this thought well. In an open letter to the U.S. dated October 1, 2020, he states, “I enjoy a robust policy debate, but I’m not a politician. I’m a scientist, business leader, husband and father, friend, and neighbor who cares deeply about the integrity of this potential vaccine. The amplified political rhetoric around vaccine development, timing, and political credit is undercutting public confidence. I can’t predict exactly when, or even if our vaccine will be approved by the FDA for distribution to the public. But I do know that the world will be safer if we stop talking about the vaccines’ delivery in political terms and focus instead on a rigorous independent scientific evaluation and a robust independent approval process.”

Of everything found in the entire human knowledge base, nothing in recent centuries has increased the life span, nutrition, health, and wealth of humanity more than that trace element we call science. For this, we can be grateful for the thousands of dedicated scientists and researchers focused on advancing science. Yet, as the COVID-19 environment has shown so clearly, there are signs that there is a growing war against science in its truest form. 

The war against science is not just an attempt to challenge scientific facts. It is also the race to devalue science by making it something it is not. Science is not a slogan, marketing tool, or political positioning mechanism. Science is not able to support our 24/7/365 decision-making cadence. It is a path to ongoing discovery. If we allow it to become our primary decision-making mechanism, the chances for reducing global misery and solving humanity’s hardest problems will decrease significantly, impacting us all.