Marcia McNutt, President, National Academy of Sciences

Science systems responses to pandemics


Science as a system adjusts during crisis to deliver its finest value to society. Petty differences and rivalries are cast aside as the community works together to labor under impossible deadlines to save lives, minimize economic losses, and protect what is valued. Pandemics as health crises are little different from other types of crises (environmental, political, humanitarian), except for the fact that science itself can be under siege, as field programs are shut down, time series are interrupted, laboratories are forced to work under unusual protocols to protect personnel, science supply chains are disrupted, and research staff can be distracted caring for family members in quarantine. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has certainly witnessed a major system’s shift in the conduct of science as any laboratory with relevance to virology or epidemiology has quickly retooled to address the current crisis, while the work of some others has pivoted to take advantage of special conditions created as a result of the pandemic. The science advisory system, such as that provided by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has also shifted to provide new advisory and communications products to meet the specialized nature of this crisis.

Framework for Science During Crisis

Given the special nature of science during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the National Academies we have developed a framework which consists of three distinct types of science that account for the unique nature of science during crisis:

(1)  Actionable science, defined as science delivered to a decision maker that is timely; understood by the non-scientist; provided in the context of the decision at hand; of the highest standards that timeliness allows; and meaningful – in terms of safety, economics, health, welfare, security, or any other values that matter to society.

(2)  Strategic science, defined as robust, evidence-based interventions to promote a resilient recovery from the crisis that emerge from considering a range of future scenarios.

(3)  Irreplaceable science, defined as research that takes advantage of the unusual conditions existing during a crisis; requires rapid response by funders and researchers; is constrained by a requirement to not interfere with response efforts/actionable science; and poses challenges for scientific reproducibility.

In the early days of the crisis, our leaders needed to make informed decisions on short notice. They needed actionable science. At the National Academies, we stood up a standing committee on emerging infectious diseases to provide actionable science to the U.S. government on such topics as the effectiveness of homemade face masks, costs/benefits of social distancing, crisis standards of care, the seasonality of the virus, and the possibility of bioaerosol spread (Figure 1). And because the pandemic has an immediate impact on almost all aspects of daily life, we also partnered with the National Science Foundation to launch a network that is bringing the full range of scientific expertise across the social, natural, and biomedical sciences to provide actionable science on issues such as how to encourage people to wear face masks, how to reopen schools safely, the best practices for distance teaching and learning, and how to strengthen mental health services during this crisis. The network is addressing these and other myriad questions that are being raised by mayors, governors, local representatives, and other leaders.

Another actionable scientific product that the National Academies produced for the U.S. Government during the pandemic are fast-tracked consensus reports. One of the higher profile ones makes recommendations on the equitable allocation of a COVID-19 vaccine, once it becomes available. It is expected that there will not be sufficient quantities of vaccine or capacity to provide the treatment to everyone as soon as it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for distribution. For that reason, the National Academies developed evidence-based recommendations for the order in which people should be vaccinated, taking into account differential risks of exposure to the disease, risks of adverse consequences if infected, and risks of passing along the disease to others if infected.

While much focus in the early days of a crisis is by necessity on the actionable science, it is also important to plan for the longer term. Whereas it took mere weeks for the coronavirus to upend almost every sector of society, it is looking increasingly likely that a full recovery could take years. For well into the foreseeable future, policy makers and communities will struggle to make decisions now that position them well for an uncertain future: When will a vaccine be approved for distribution? Even when it is, will COVID-19 be with us for the long-term, like the seasonal flu or the measles? For this type of longer-term planning, the National Academy has created a Response and Resilient Recovery Strategic Science Initiative (R3SSI) to undertake strategic science by engaging interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, and medical professionals in scenario planning to consider possible chains of consequences for health, the environment, the economy, education, and infrastructure stemming from the pandemic under a range of future assumptions concerning the behavior of the virus and society’s response to the pandemic. The scenarios allow decision makers to invest resources to prevent a long-term legacy of problems that cascade from the virus, to people’s health, to society, to national economies, and even to global political stability.

For example, researchers will examine the possible impacts of a new round of infections on migrant farm workers, a vulnerable population with housing incompatible with self-quarantine and concerns about immigration status that may interfere with seeking timely medical attention. An epidemic in this population could have ramifications far beyond themselves and their immediate families, potentially disrupting food supplies and local, regional, and even the national economy. How could such a scenario be prevented, or if it initiated, be mitigated? Will such concerns potentially lead to increased mechanization of farm labor? Or as the pandemic wears on, strategic science can weigh a range of scenarios that could ensure that the capacity of research universities – major stimulators of innovation, ingenuity, and economic growth – is maintained in an era of severe financial challenges and fiscal constraints. A third scenario will look at the impact of COVID-19 on the rental housing market. High rates of unemployment could lead to evictions as state moratoriums on eviction lapse. Landlords will be unable to keep up with mortgage payments, increasing the level of loan defaults. Homelessness will increase. The users of these scenarios will be federal agencies, national, state, and local government, institutions, and even private industry.

While no one would wish a pandemic on a society, crises provide an opportunity to conduct irreplaceable science, a special type of research that takes advantage of the unusual conditions existing during a crisis; requires rapid response by funders and researchers; is constrained by a requirement to not interfere with response efforts/actionable science; and poses challenges for scientific reproducibility. The results may, or may not, be directly relevant to the solutions to the crisis at hand. For example, no scientist would be able to devise an experiment in which a large fraction of the global population is asked to socially distance for months, but now that it has happened, it is important to understand the impacts on mental health, family relationships, and the fabric of society. Such knowledge will be valuable in understanding how best to respond to a second wave of COVID or another pandemic. On the other hand, ocean scientists had been hoping to organize a “quiet day” for the oceans – a 24-hour period of relative silence from the cultural noise from human disturbance. Instead, thanks to the pandemic, they got months of relative quiet to observe the impact of turning down the noise level in the oceans on marine life. While most irreplaceable science will be done by researchers at universities and other labs, there is a role for the National Academies in helping to identify important opportunities for irreplaceable science and in integrating the results where appropriate into actionable and strategic science.

Communication of Science During Pandemics

Science communication should be carefully crafted for any science result that is likely to be public facing or of public interest, but in times of crisis the stakes are much higher. Science communication must be rapid, often not having the luxury of waiting for peer review of results, clear, accurate, and alert for efforts to misinform or twist the results by those who have ulterior motives, such as to downplay the severity of the crisis or magnify it for personal advantage.

The National Academies have launched several initiatives to aid in communicating accurate scientific information during the COVID crisis and counteract misinformation, which is unfortunately quite easily proliferated via social media. For example, the National Academy of Sciences has greatly expanded its “Based on Science” public communication partnership with Google and Bing created to counteract misinformation on the web to include a large section on COVID-19. Many of the entries use information taken from the “actionable science” delivered to decision makers, but the Academy works with science writers to make the content accessible to a non-scientifically literate public. The answers are to the most searched items on the web concerning COVID-19, and include scientific accurate answers to counter misinformation on the web on faulty cures for COVID-19 or methods for avoiding infection.

The National Academy of Sciences’ LabX, a public engagement program targeted to young adults, has also developed an interactive online game called “Jamming the Curve” to help demonstrate through simulation the benefits of social distancing, wearing masks, and other approaches to lowering the rates of infection.

The National Academy of Sciences has also made liberal use of webinars to reach broader, more diverse, and more geographically dispersed audiences than we ever did before when our communications were primarily limited to in-person conferences in Washington, D.C. For example, Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania delivered an engaging webinar on the challenges of science communication during crisis. She advocated for better distinction when communicating scientific results on the level of trustworthiness of the findings, based on a hierarchy. Systematic use of signals of quality such as shown in this diagram can help journalists and the public understand the difference in reliability between, for example, a one-off observation and a double-blind controlled study.

Final Thoughts

The COVID-19 pandemic is the classic example of a problem that we will not solve anywhere until we solve it everywhere. This scientific framework including actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science (and “science” is a shorthand, meant to include “engineering” and “medicine”) will bring much needed focus and cohesion to public- and private-sector research efforts related to the pandemic, and encourage collaboration and cooperation, both in the U.S. and around the world. We’ve already seen many examples of scientists teaming up across borders in new and novel ways to work on developing vaccines and treatments. During an era of growing nationalization, researchers must resist that trend and continue to share knowledge so that lessons learned in one country can inform response and recovery in other nations.

Our global research enterprise houses the expertise to conquer the pandemic and, at the same time, help shape a stronger, better prepared world. As we fight this worldwide emergency, employing actionable, strategic, and irreplaceable science can help society recover from this crisis and also be better positioned to respond to inevitable future challenges for many generations to come.

Acknowledgement: Much of this essay is taken from

McNutt, Marcia, The Coronavirus Pandemic: Delivering Science in Crisis, Issues in Science and Technology, June, 2020,