Science has been a pillar of America’s power since our nation’s founding. Before Louis XVI’s France recognized Benjamin Franklin as a patriot or statesman, they welcomed him as the New World’s leading scientist. His reputation opened doors that helped our infant republic win independence.
As a nation, we’re losing our scientific way— at great peril to our health and prosperity.
Anti-vax movements of the past few years provided a deadly warning at scale. COVID responses that lack rigorous scientific insight underscore the jeopardy we all face.
Reinvigorate Our Public Relationship With Science
National level coordination and collaboration with the scientific community will define global leadership through the COVID crisis and beyond— as it has throughout America’s history.
This crisis offers us the opportunity and requirement to regain our scientific footing. How many anti-vaxers would turn away a COVID 19 vaccine? (This is, alas, not an entirely rhetorical question.)
When good friend biotechnology entrepreneur and author Safi Bahcall spoke for TWIN Global 2019, we lived in another world. No COVID, no recreational uses for bleach and no shelter-in-place orders.
At TWIN Global, Bahcall shared insights from Loonshots, his must-read book on innovation. Bahcall defines loonshots as, “crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases and transform industries.” We need loonshot thinking more than ever, so Bahcall and I recently caught up.
Lessons From Pandemics & World Wars
In a recent WSJ Op Ed, Bahcall argues that, rather than the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, our moment rhymes with World War Two. We should learn from the national experience during that global tragedy. “Today, you see some of that [sense of urgency] we saw during World War Two.”
Many of the profound scientific leaps that helped win the World War have not received their due.
For example, the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944 heralded, arguably, one of the most unrecognized, consequential pivots in business history. Before becoming a pharmaceutical juggernaut, Pfizer produced ingredients for Coca Cola. In the run-up to the Allied invasion of Normandy, Pfizer resurrected penicillin, a breakthrough that had lingered in US labs throughout the Great Depression.
Pfizer’s work amplified a sustained victory after D-Day. Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers survived who might have otherwise perished from infectious diseases.
“Corporations made a huge difference in our ability to win World War Two in the military side, but also in infectious diseases. Scientists and engineers in large companies mobilized with a sense of urgency. I do not think people appreciate that.”
Widespread Crises Demand National Leadership
Few today recognize the pivotal role played during the war by our national government to catalyze and coordinate private sector action by scientists, corporations and startups. Not limiting what they tried, but focusing efforts and scaling what works.
The private sector can bring speed and scale, but marshalling these assets at a national level requires national leadership. During widespread crises, our federal response should lead private sector efforts.
Dr. Richard Shih, doctor and professor of emergency medicine at the Schmidt College of Medicine, Florida Atlantic University, explained why in a recent email exchange. “If Google or Apple come up with an incredible tracing app, our public health departments need to incorporate and utilize this along with traditional tracing techniques.”
Without federal coordination, “private industry efforts will have limited benefit, no matter how good their ideas and products.”
“We Will Never Surrender”
Prior to Normandy, there were plenty of temptations to capitulate. Churchill, Roosevelt—and in dark ways, Stalin— steeled their nations’ resolve.
To echo Columbia University’s Chair of Surgery, Dr. Craig Smith, our Normandy is already underway. Heroic nurses and doctors represent our forces conscripted to combat, often with insufficient resources. As Dr. Smith observes, most critical COVID patients survive because our doctors and nurses “don’t give up.”
Bahcall shares reasons for hope. “I am optimistic that we may have some antiviral treatments by the fall…. There are hundreds of clinical trials underway,” facts lost in the media marathon promoting single experimental ideas.
Scientific Leadership For Today And Beyond
Today, we waver due to confusing— even dangerous— messages from the top and a lack of national clarity and coordination. Some acts of defiance, such as resisting use of masks in public, claim as their purpose to protect our way of life. They risk becoming acts of despair.
During the 1918 pandemic, San Francisco’s mayor often failed to comply with his own mandatory mask order. Ill-timed, ill-coordinated efforts to return the economy to normal contributed to resurgences of the illness. Victory requires consistent, disciplined leadership.
Before a COVID resurgence expected late this year, Bahcall argues America should appoint a “Scientist General” to marshal the forces necessary to prevail. Someone “respected by both academia and industry and experienced in working with, rather than against, Washington.”
I second this call and nominate Safi Bahcall, Ph.D., for the role. Consider his background as a scientist, entrepreneur and public thought leader. Whoever assumes this role will require broad insights from science, politics, media, communications and human nature. Bahcall is one of the precious few people with such breadth and depth.
Toward Life, Liberty & Our Pursuit Of Happiness
We have a national challenge of scientific understanding and trust exacerbated via social media platforms by those who would wish us harm. They victimize some of our fellow citizens’ honest desire to do what’s right.
Part of the challenge is the complexity of science. There is no one “science” and rarely a single scientific answer to any question. A critical role for a Scientist General will be to navigate the nuances of science, technology and public perception.
Science plays outsized, essential roles in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. It is also a complex, murky enterprise conferring enormous power— with both intended and unintended consequences.
The better we catalyze and connect science with society, the more effective our entrepreneurs and investors will be at generating economic prosperity and the more prepared America will be for future challenges, viral or otherwise.
Our national mission requires qualified minds and steady hands to help us navigate the gifts and challenges of power. Our Republic requires a qualified advocate with a bully pulpit— and a bully budget. Not just now, but ongoing.
Whoever holds such a role will need to be broad-minded, eloquent, credible, collaborative and empathetic— a Franklin for America’s 21st century. They’ll need all of these arts to re-ignite a healthy faith in science and enhance our nation’s resilience through crises such as we now confront— and will surely face again.
Fellow citizens, I hope you’ll join me in nominating Safi Bahcall, Ph.D., for the new national post of Scientist General.