Scientific research holds the key to our future
I was looking through my microscope, analysing the beautiful shape of a fibroblast mitochondrial network, when the microscope lens turned around and, all of a sudden, I myself was under the spotlight, being observed by everyone in this world. My research was alive. I could finally share the passion that has driven the youngest years of my life with friends, family and the public. Even policymakers were interested in my cell counting number, the intensity of my staining and the biochemical readout of my mutagenesis. Together, we were trying to interpret the unpredictable graphs that I was producing. Science was sprouting from the darkness of my lab. It was the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a Eureka moment for the science field!
The more we discussed, however, the more I felt surrounded by scientific babel: data were misread and misused; conclusions were extrapolated from a detail of the whole picture; concepts were generalised and delivered to implement life-changing solutions; harsh debates were taking place in the public sphere, which divided the scientific community and compromised the value of science itself. As a member of a generation of young scientists, I felt the duty to restore harmony and share my belief in research as a key aspect of an innovative and better future. In this article, I would like to revise some essential concepts about scientific research and share my vision on some actions that must be implemented in the agreement with the public and policymakers to prevent a second COVID-like effect on scientific communication.
Research is the base of human progress
The term research comes from the Latin word circare, which means ‘to go around’ or ‘to discover around’, with the reinforcing prefix ‘re-’ indicating the intensity and the perseverance of the action. This simple term contains key concepts at the base of any research: observation, experimentation, discovery, and confirmation. Research is inspired by the observation of a circumscribed phenomenon (“around”) in a specific time and space. From this perspective, Homo Erectus could be considered the first successful scientist, because its discovery of fire was crucial in establishing the cognitive supremacy of the Homo genus and in determining its survival. However, research work is also driven by the curiosity of understanding elements, causes, mechanisms, and consequences of those phenomena with a systematic and descriptive method. One famous example is the one Aristotle, world-renowned philosopher, scientist and humanist, implemented in the area of cosmology and biology.
Research starts with the formulation of a hypothesis or the design of an idea that should be strong enough to transcend the limits of human capability and explore the impossible. Citing Aristotle: “There is no great genius without some touch of madness”. And historically, humans have believed in the most bizarre and foolish ideas. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, believed that human nature is composed of four basic liquids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) and that the unbalance between these liquids would lead to the development of a disease. Alchemists aimed to produce gold by melting the less noble metals. Despite the fact that all of these hypotheses were refuted with time, they were grains of knowledge that inspired future scientists and thus led to the implementation of the innovative solutions that characterise the modern world. From the simple observation of a falling apple from Newton’s tree, we learned the concept of gravity, further modified and improved by the introduction of space and time as parameters in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Then, by following astrophysical observations we finally arrived at the discovery of the Origin of the Universe, with Hawking’s “Theory of everything”.
Every experiment must be reproducible and should reach the same results independently from the actor (the scientist) and the stage (the laboratory). Therefore, it is a requirement to re-act or, in other words, to search again for the same or the opposite hypothesis in order to confirm the important knowledge gained from the experiments. This process is embedded in the everyday work of a scientist and explains why theories have been disproven over the years and outstanding and excellent scientists have refuted their own ideas. It was Stephen Hawking himself, the genius of cosmology, mathematics and astrophysics, who gave us this important lesson during his exceptional career.
So, if every scientific theory can fail, can we still believe in research results? The answer is yes, because they have a demonstrable positive effect on our ability to control nature. Every second of our life is qualitatively and quantitatively improved by scientific discoveries. Physicians wouldn’t be able to diagnose a lung disease if René Laennnec didn’t invent the stethoscope (1816) and Marie Curie didn’t discover the base of radiography (1895). No infectious diseases could be treated if Alexander Fleming hadn’t discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin (1928). We wouldn’t listen to music through headphones if the radio wasn’t invented by the concerted actions of Nikola Tesla and Gugliemo Marconi (1890-1895) and if the first headphones were not available thanks to the work of Nathaniel Baldwin (1910). An infinite number of examples could be given. Therefore, we shouldn’t only believe in science but we should invest more resources in it.
Research shapes our future
Today’s society benefits from inventions and discoveries made in the past. Therefore, every single chemical reaction, algorithm, biological experiment and engineering design that we are carrying out now will shape our future. Yet, our society is facing new challenges and some of them are consequences of the misuse or overuse of inventions that are adversely affecting our planet, our health, and our psychology. This is why I believe we have a duty to run “good research” and invest in “research for good”. The elements of good research are an appropriate methodology and setting, accurate performance of experiments, unbiased data interpretation, quality control, and scientific integrity. Although these are rather basic requirements, lack of funding and regulatory restrictions make them hard to achieve in many cases. This is particularly true when we compare research in the public and private sectors. Investing in good research means asking the right question of scientists, predicting the results obtained by the implementation of an invention, preventing damaging consequences and imagining our future society in harmony with nature. Investing in “research for good” (a.k.a. research for innovation) would bring benefits in every field: technology, medicine, arts, communication, and more.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of sufficient previous investments in innovation, specifically in healthcare. The obvious example is the lack of information on individual protective devices. No clear data were available on the general use of devices such as masks, goggles, helmets and clothes in different settings. This led to the communication of contradictory messages to the general population and hindered the promotion of safe behaviour. Specifically, no research data were available on coronaviruses, despite the previous SARS and MERS outbreaks. Moreover, for some devices such as ventilatory support, we have observed a failure in translating scientific innovation into a fast and effective industrialisation, which resulted in a scarcity of devices in the short term. By analysing the whole scenario, I would argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of the European and local research systems: funding opportunities; quality control, and translating research into benefit. These key points must be addressed by creating specific central organs.
Research is a human right
As we have seen, scientific advancements are fundamental for social progress. Thus, it is no surprise that research has been declared a human right by Art. 27 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by Art. 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). We must exercise this human right in the acts of “doing research” and “benefitting from research”.
However, in the 21st century we are still far from guaranteeing an equal right to do research. In some countries, extreme regulation prevents scientists from testing their hypotheses with the right models and tools, while in other countries the absence of regulation gives freedom to scientific experiments that expose humanity to high risks. Genetic engineering, stem cells application and artificial intelligence implementation are just a few examples of the topics debated by scientists, the public and policymakers. Extreme regulation about the use of these new technologies might prevent “good research” from groundbreaking discovery. On the other hand, the absence of regulations brought the entire scientific and non-scientific community to face the unethical and uncontrolled acceleration of experimental therapies for human use. The application of a so-called pseudoscience as a form of naturopathy, homoeopathy or any other non-scientifically proven therapies has caused further damage to already compromised patients.
To protect the right to do research, a simple unified policy would not be enough. Technological progress is too fast. What is needed is a continuous and organised discussion between scientists and policymakers within the framework of a flexible and visionary regulatory system. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is, again, a dramatic example of how the right to research is not protected around the world. Third-world countries lack scientific information, therapies and technologies to treat and prevent the disease. The disparity between rich and poor countries will be particularly evident when the vaccine becomes available. It is highly probable that it will be reserved for the countries that have pre-booked slots with pharmaceutical companies.
To protect the right to benefit from research, we must act at three different levels:
Communication: scientific results must be evaluated, peer-reviewed and edited before final publication in order to maximise their reliability. The dissemination to the public must follow an additional revision step in order to deliver a message that is clear, simple, and impactful to the public. Moreover, science should reach out through a variety of creative tools: visual and performing arts; new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality; and alternative modelling such as 3D printing. This has already been experimented in some creative-learning labs around the world and in experimental courses in universities (https://learn.media.mit.edu/). Therefore, two professional figures should be embedded in any research centre in order to disseminate research results: an artist in residence and an expert in science communication;
Engagement: several public engagement events are already taking place in universities and private research centres, with the goal of inspiring the new generation of scientists. Any scientific achievement starts from the intuition of a scientist but the “Eureka” moment is achieved through a long process where all of these elements occur.
Implementation: scientific results should be implemented rapidly, especially when they can be life-changing for a community. The feasibility of the implementation depends on the access to results repositories, their translation into innovation and finally the introduction into society. This stepwise process currently lacks a clear definition and regulation in many scientific fields.
Guaranteeing the right to do research should be a priority for governments worldwide, and the European Union could play a leading role in making this a reality.
The lessons learnt from COVID-19
My generation has experienced disasters due to natural and human causes since its beginning. The nuclear accident in Chernobyl (1986), the Gulf War oil spill (1991), several earthquakes including the one in the Abruzzo region in Italy (2009), the Tsunami in Haiti (2010), and now the COVID-19 pandemic are a handful of examples. The scientific community has tried to help during and after many of these events, but it has remained voiceless, with moderate or minimal consideration. For the first time, with the pandemic we are now having an open discussion and political actions are being somewhat driven by the scientific community in most countries. No one was ready for this challenge, but we are learning important lessons, which will allow us to redesign our future.
In this redesigned future, scientific information should be evidence-based. The value of public communication should not be based on the reputation of the person who gives it, but on the value of the data it is based on. Public health advice given by a Nobel Laureate or a postdoctoral fellow should have the same value, as long as the data are accurate and reproducible. Similarly, scientific information should have the same value if delivered by the first ranked university in the world or the 300th ranked institution, as long as the data are accurate and reproducible. More rigorous checks on information sources should be put in place. This should not be the responsibility of a single press company or a social network, but it should be put in place by policymakers. Finally, scientific communication is a discipline that scientists or anyone interested in science should be trained for. Scientific communication carried out by non-experts may have a devastating psychological impact on society and, in some situations, become a risk for the people's life.
Turning the microscope lens back on their experiments, scientists are now ready to make new discoveries with greater support from the worldwide community, in the hope of working together to shape a better future for us all.