Panel on Responding to COVID - Opportunities for All Researchers to Engage

By: Adriana Bankston
May 6, 2020
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The COVID-19 crisis has significantly impacted the scientific community, resulting in the need for researchers to pivot their agendas and more broadly engage in their local communities. This shift may result in broader opportunities for researchers to amplify evidence-based research, reduce the spread of misinformation, and advocate for science-informed approaches to managing the pandemic. They may also volunteer their laboratory or data analysis skills for this purpose and participate in civic engagement through novel and creative ways.

This online panel discussion, which took place on April 20, 2020, included researchers from different disciplines who shared ideas for STEM professionals looking to respond to COVID-19 in the present moment. Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) participated in the event, which was organized by the Society Civic Science Initiative and moderated by Rose Hendricks, a Kavli civic science fellow.

The discussion focused on several aspects of the responses to COVID-19 from the scientific community. Panelists were: Devin Reese (ESAL), Piper Below (associate professor, Vanderbilt University), John Drazan (postdoctoral fellow, University of Pennsylvania), and Farah Qaiser (graduate student, University of Toronto).

What skills and resources do scientists bring to the COVID-19 crisis that equip them to respond? Scientists are good at serving as ambassadors for how knowledge is uncovered and helping the public understand the method of science is really important. While this does pose a challenge because scientists are engaging in new areas, it is also really important that they utilize their scientific education, background, and expertise to become a trusted source and improve the accessibility of COVID-19 information.

How can the scientific community best prioritize equity and inclusion in responding to COVID-19? It is important to differentiate between facts and pseudoscience, and communicate the process of science rather than just what it produces. We also need to make sure that COVID-19 information is accessible on a number of different platforms, so that we can reach various communities. Before rolling out science communication strategies, we should consult with different stakeholders affected by COVID-19, meanwhile keeping diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. Disparities may exist for underrepresented minorities with less access to healthcare and precision medicine, as well as lack of access to COVID-19 testing. While virtual spaces encourage broad participation in COVID-19 issues, it would also be helpful to have online conversations which are more closely moderated to ensure that they are well-informed and accurate.

How should scientists without COVID-19-related research expertise respond to the crisis? It is impressive how quickly the STEM community has stepped in to deal with this crisis. Scientists who don’t speak up will leave behind an information vacuum. Therefore, all scientists should advocate for the process of science, as well as focus on data and scientific literacy when communicating with stakeholders. There are interesting intersections emerging between COVID-19 and society, for example how periods of inactivity or bedrest due to the pandemic will affect people’s rates of injury or inability to recover muscle function, and how we may help physical therapists deal with this issue. Communities thrive when everyone participates and tackles challenges together. Scientists need to recognize their limitations, but that should not be a barrier to engagement. We should amplify the voices of experts, and point the public to them as a resource.

How might researchers engage more with their academic and professional communities? One important point is to advocate for colleagues who need more support during this time, such as graduate students, who will be heavily impacted and stuck at home wondering what to do. While their unions and department chairs might be able to help, there is a need to collect data on what issues graduate students are dealing with during the crisis. At the same time, we should also think about postdocs, who might be on the job market right now, as well as junior faculty who are stressed by the tenure clock. In addition, some researchers may be on maternity leave or dealing with children at home, and these factors will lead to a shift in productivity and the need for scientists to take care of themselves as a first priority.

How do people find time for everything they need to do at home during this crisis? Realistically, some days people may be getting a lot done and other days not. This is the new normal and there should be lower expectations for productivity. One piece of advice was to find the balance that works for you, and specifically list activities you are comfortable with completing, or not completing, during a day. We must also recognize that this is a very different environment than normal, and we should help people talk about what makes them happy (like their pets). This is also a good time to reconnect with a lot of people, check in on them, and think more broadly about our values as a society. Finally, it is an exciting time for citizen science, and we should give people productive things to do in order to provide a role in advancing research and helping society.

Biographies of the panel participants:

Piper Below is a computational human geneticist, whose work is part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative led out of the Broad Institute. She is also interested in science communication and has facilitated COVID-19-related discussions on reddit between various scientific experts and lay audiences.

John Drazan is a biomechanist who is also involved in STEM education and outreach. He is STEM director of 4th Family, a grassroots nonprofit where he gets kids into math and science through sports performance training. Through the AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement, he facilitated coordinations between expert COVID-19 researchers and sports media platforms.

Farah Qaiser carries out DNA sequencing to better understand complex neurological disorders. She is also one of the co-founders of the Toronto Science Policy Network. In response to COVID-19, she volunteered with a group of Canadian researchers to build a one-stop portal used to crowdsource all Canadian initiatives around COVID-19. Through the science policy group, she is also working on a survey to look at the effects of COVID-19 on graduate students in Canada.

Devin Reese is a science communicator who specializes in targeting and translating science content, practice, and policy for various audiences. She writes and edits as a freelancer for various organizations; current contracts include PBS, WWF, Newsela, and Plain Language Source. For ESAL, Devin has been interviewing scientists and policy-makers and blogging about how their scientific training plays a role in COVID-19 relief.

For additional information: A full video of the event is available. As part of a workshop series organized by Johns Hopkins Science Policy Group, Adriana Bankston gave a related talk on how scientists can become a trusted source for communicating COVID-19 information (slides are available). Rose Hendricks is tracking additional resources for researchers on responding to COVID-19 through civic engagement, communication, and citizen science. For more ways to get engaged in your community on these topics, visit the ESAL’s COVID-19 Resources for Engineers & Scientists page.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 05/6/20
Updated: 09/14/22
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