The fight against coronavirus has arguably given science more prominence in the public imagination in 2020 than any year in living memory, with the possible exception of 1969 when man first landed on the moon.
Although the circumstances could hardly be more different, scientists are hoping their role in the battle against Covid-19 will boost their image — increasing research funding and drawing more young people into scientific careers — as Nasa’s Apollo programme did half a century ago.
“There is no question that the Covid response has enhanced the reputation of science,” said Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, molecular biologist and Nobel laureate, who has just completed a five-year term as president of the Royal Society, the senior UK scientific body.
“If I was a young person looking at the way so many disparate areas of science have come together in such a collaborative way, I would say: ‘This is fantastic’,” he added.
In the same way as the 1960s space race boosted science far beyond the fields most obviously involved, such as physics and engineering, the pandemic response should be felt just as widely, said Rachel Youngman, deputy chief executive of the UK Institute of Physics.
“Covid-19 has popularised the idea of ‘following the science’ — enhanced the profile of science generally,” she said. “There is an understandable focus on the life sciences during a pandemic, so there is a need to ensure that physics is properly understood for the role it plays in healthcare — for example, biomedical technology and imaging — which enable breakthroughs in diagnosis and treatment.”
The pandemic has shone a spotlight directly at statistics and mathematical modelling. As the former England footballer turned sports presenter Gary Lineker put it on Twitter: “The only positive I can think of during this entire pandemic nightmare is that some of us may have learnt to read a graph.”
“Media demand for scientists to talk about Covid has been huge,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science, a charity campaigning for sound scientific thinking. “This has been particularly noticeable with statistics. Statisticians suddenly found themselves with lots of followers on social media.”
In 2019 Sense about Science launched a campaign about data science and algorithms, Ms Brown said, “but it was very difficult to talk to the public about it. Now people know what we mean when we talk about ‘models’.”
Fiona Fox, chief executive of the Science Media Centre in London, said she could not praise too highly the way the busiest scientists working on Covid-19 were willing to devote time and effort to public communications.
“The quality of the scientists appearing in the media on a daily basis has been fantastic,” she said. “Some of them are turning out to be much better communicators than the politicians. The case we’ve been making for the last two decades about the importance of scientists engaging with the media is now made.”
Schools and universities can look forward to more students choosing to study science subjects as a result of all the attention they are receiving during the pandemic, said Sir John Holman, professor of chemistry at the University of York and president of the Association for Science Education.
But science educators should not take the surge in interest for granted, he added. “Yes there may be more glamour around science now but there are several factors at work when young people decide what to study. Number one is your teacher and number two is the job prospects in that career.”
Another crucial point, Sir John said, is that practical work in school and university labs, which has largely been suspended as a result of social distancing measures during the pandemic, must resume as quickly as it safe to do so — and on a substantial scale.
“Practical work in science is highly motivating, and for many young people, the reason they chose science. So we can’t afford to see it decline,” he said.
Science education could also change as a result of the pandemic, Sir John said: “We need to be more explicit about the uncertainty in science. When you measure things, people get different answers and we need to embed more of that uncertainty into science education.”
Though it is too soon for most university systems to report reliable data for applications to science programmes in the next academic year, figures for medical schools show substantial increases.
The UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reported applications for medicine are up 21 per cent to 28,690. The American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) said “applicants for the class of 2021 are skyrocketing, with the number already up 18 per cent compared to last year”.
“The pandemic is spotlighting the extraordinary services that physicians provide on the front lines,” said David Skorton, AAMC president.