Coronavirus Pandemia: Why Science Matters Now?

Image Source: Chemical & Engineering Society

This is my fourth blog post on the coronavirus pandemia and I will focus on science and how general people are getting more interested in biomedical research. I’ve written in several occasions that the scientific system is broken, and I’ve criticized how the scientific funding system works, the peer-revision process, the low salaries and long hours of work, etc. In fact, let me just remind the readers how the scientific cycle works (I’ve already discussed this in an old post – check it here): First, when you want to get into academic research you need to do a Ph.D. in a very “famous” laboratory; this is the “business card” to get a Post-Doctoral Training in an even better laboratory (either in the US or in Europe); second you will need to publish your research after long hours of work (working like a “slave”, Pardon my French…) with a very low salary – not very exciting right?; third, with good publications in high-level journals you will need to bring in research money from well-respected funding agencies since this will enable you to start your own laboratory in a different Institution. If that does not happen you are already “out of the game”; fourth, if you are successful in all the first 3 steps, which are tremendously difficult, you can start your own laboratory and get funding  (the statistics are terrible: less than 5% of Post-Doctorates get to this stage, so what happens to the other ~95%? Do another Post-Doc, become jobless, change profession or go into the private sector). Thus, it is very competitive and the “big labs” always get the funding and grants. It is a very old-fashioned system. Another interesting fact is this: when you do experiments, draw an hypothesis out of them, write an article with your own intellectual skills, most times you will need to pay to publish (and a lot; we are talking depending on the publisher and journal at least 1,500 US Dollars) and give all copyrights to the publisher (well, there are some “open source” options, however it is not working well mainly because the big publishers are not happy, they want to keep getting their profits). Then, after giving the publisher all the rights for your work, paying a lot to publish, getting nothing in exchange financially – just “scientific prestige” (check my old blog post on this subject here), the publisher charges people to download the article (a range of 30-50 US dollars per article!). This is outrageous. Another fact: the private sector has full access to all these scientific articles (paying for downloads) and use them to develop “products” that they will come back and sell to Academic Centers and Laboratories for a very high price. It is a terrible cycle. Even Nobel Prize scientists are not happy at all with how science works (see my blog post about it here). It is a win, loose, loose, loose game. The only one winning here is the Publisher and eventually biotech and pharma companies. The most important aspect that will be the focus of my post: general people that pay taxes (part of it go to the funding agencies to finance research) have no clue how science and the scientific system works. Now, with the coronavirus pandemia, I believe everyone in the world is trying to understand how this system works. I always get questions like: Why there is not a medicine for the virus? Why there is no treatment? Why it took so long for governments all over the world to catch up and we are still in this mess? Simple answer: Scientific Systems are unprepared for any global pandemia. The system definitely has to change. Science communication has to come out strong after that (please stop the “fake news”!). Why is it so difficult to deal with the spread of the disease and lack of trustful information from the media and the governments? I don’t know. Lots of politics involved here. However, I think the positive point is that general citizens all over the world are trying to understand the scientific system, how we respond to pandemic situations such as this one and are demanding answers (true answers!). Now we see strong collaborations between Academic Centers and pharmaceutical companies (i.e.: University of Oxford and AstraZeneca) for a vaccine (this already happened before, but it not the rule). I will discuss the race to a vaccine for the coronavirus in my next blog posts (coming soon…). Let me give, as I always do, a personal example on how the scientific system is slow and old-fashioned: I just had an article accepted in a journal recently and we got the Cover of the Journal. I will not cite names here to avoid problems, but we (mainly my ex-Ph.D. student) took our creativity, time, resources and designed a “masterpiece cover” for the journal. We sent it to the Editorial Office and got the reply saying that the Cover was very nice and we would need to pay a fee of 1,700 US Dollars to have it published with our article. I said what? I wrote back questioning that we took our time, resources and creativity to design a cover and would have to pay to give them our copyrights – no thank you! The Editor wrote back apologizing and waiving 100% of the fee. This is a “toxic” business that is really affecting careers of young scientists. Another important fact: several if not most scientific articles published are already “old-news” since it takes an average of six months to a year if you are lucky to get your study published anywhere. Thus, now that this pandemia has impacted the globe, I see a “fast and furious” race both in academia and in the private sector to develop vaccines and treatments. I hope after we get an efficient treatment and/or vaccine the whole scientific system changes for the better. In addition, I defend that all the scientific community find better ways to communicate with the general public, mostly non-scientists, with trustful information in a way they can understand – no technical stuff, please. Science communication is key and it has to change for the better. People say that there is always a good side for every history and I hope this pandemia changes the whole scientific system for the better. We will see. I have my fingers crossed: to overcome this global pandemia and for changes in the way science is done everywhere!

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