It takes a village.

Omwana takulila nju emoi – Lunyoro/Bunyoro proverb[1]

The February 27th edition of The Economist carried a short article entitled “Covid-19: How British science came to the rescue.” The piece acknowledges Britain’s belated scientific and political response at the pandemic’s onset, but then goes on to praise what followed: the world-leading clinical trials, genetic sequencing, the development and rapid rollout of covid therapies such as dexamethasone and toxicilizumab, and, ultimately, an efficacious vaccine.

The writers attribute this success to three pillars: elite institutions, streamlined regulation, and big datasets – and, across the whole, close links connecting business, academia, and government. In the detailing, they note that while Britain spends relatively little in R&D, the investment is concentrated in health. They cite the pivotal role played by world-class organizations clustered around just three locations: Oxford, Cambridge, and London. They point to engagement by hospitals across the whole of Great Britain, and the broader public’s willing participation in large clinical trials. (The article also makes clear that much of this broad involvement was made possible by an undesirably large number of patients, occasioned by that policy bumbling at the beginning and other missteps along the way.) Throughout, they stress the good communication and collaborative links tying together individual scientists, corporate executives, and government-agency leaders.

Here on this side of the Pond, we might find cause for both cheer and concern. First the happy bit; the Brits attribute much of their achievement to imitation of America’s example over a period of years. They cite, with admiration, American success at translating scientific and technological advance into good jobs and other societal benefit. They also point to America’s culture of shuttling people in and out of government from academia and industry. They note that in Britain, the relevant government leadership deferred to the science, and did so nimbly, cutting through lots of red tape where indicated. To reemphasize: much of this, the Brits say, they got from us.

Hmm. Nice to hear, but to read and reflect on this list is to see respects in which America and Americans could and should be doing better, and to discern trends here that are taking us in the opposite direction. The gap is widening between scientific advance and societal benefit (especially broad societal benefit, advantaging the full society generally, versus a privileged few). The public often sees easy back-and forth movements of high-profile personalities across sector boundaries as motivated by and at the same time creating conflicts of interest, versus benefiting the larger public. And that larger public for its part often seems to be growing alienated from, or even actively distrustful of science. For example, large U.S. demographics are skeptical of the well-documented importance of social distancing, masks, and even the vaccines – to say nothing of scientists themselves. As for our elite institutions, they seem to be losing a bit of their global competitive edge in the face of a less-welcoming U.S. policy towards international students and fierce competition from abroad.

And then there’s whole nimble thing – which here at home is falling casualty to rancorous partisanship. Today, American policies and regulatory frameworks seem to have achieved the impossible – on the one hand, assuming the character of quicksand, immobilizing and sinking all legislative efforts at improvement; while at the same time, whipsawing institutions and the public through head-snapping reversals of policy resulting from presidential directives.

We have work to do – but not in these areas per se. If we make elite institutions, streamlined regulation, big datasets – and that collaboration across government, business, and academia – our goals, we will fail. These are mere attributes – they only emerge as the incidental result of focusing on challenges that really matter.

Those living-on-the-real-world existential challenges? They are these. Simultaneously:

  • sustaining supply of food, water, energy and other resources to a needy planet;
  • building resiliency to hazards on a jittery planet, one that accomplishes its business through extreme events; and
  • maintaining vital ecosystem function and services of a life-giving planet, in the face of threats to habitat, environment, biomass and biodiversity, all while
  • fostering innovation, because these problems cannot be solved but so much as temporarily held at bay; and
  • ratcheting-up toward a more broadly-based culture of equity and inclusion (with respect both to participation in this work and access to its fruits) at every stage.

Perhaps we could start with embrace of our fellow villagers. We need each other.

[1] Literally, “A child does not grow up only in a single home.” Variations of this existential insight are common to several African cultures. We owe them.

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