Speaking up for Science
Photo by illustration by David Barczak September 22, 2020
In UD’s Jefferson Lecture, Thorp calls on scientists to be advocates for fact-based public policy
In a lecture quite literally ripped from the headlines, including those he wrote himself, H. Holden Thorp, the affable editor-in-chief of the influential Science family of journals, on Wednesday, Sept. 16, called on his colleagues in research to spend much more time at the intersection of science and public policy.
Thorp, who has been a chemist, inventor, educator, entrepreneur and college administrator, delivered his call during the University of Delaware’s 2020 Edward G. Jefferson Life Sciences Lecture. The Jefferson Lecture has brought multiple Nobel Prize winners and pioneering researchers to UD’s campus in its six-year run.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s lecture — “Scientific Publishing in the Age of COVID” — was delivered virtually, from an upstairs room in Thorp’s Florida home to more than 250 listeners on UD’s Zoom and livestream channels.
Despite the unusual delivery, Thorp’s message couldn’t have been more timely, arriving as it did in the midst of a presidential campaign often focused on matters of science and especially in debates over how to respond to the pandemic, the crisis of climate change, ongoing environmental perils, problems of inequity and many other global crises.
To make his case for public advocacy, Thorp followed a process any publishing researcher might use.
He included a review of relevant literature, pointing to article excerpts and graphics from this year’s issues of Science to trace the timeline of the virus, which has infected millions and claimed about 1 million lives worldwide since its first emergence in late 2019.
He explained the methods used by the six publications in the Science family of journals, which reach more than a million readers with the most significant, highest-reviewed findings of researchers. Several thousand COVID-related articles have been submitted to Science, he said. Few — maybe 4% — have been published. The number of submissions is slowing now, he said.
He showed the findings of these researchers, who revealed what they were learning about the nature and ways of this novel virus, along with what seemed to be effective responses.
And he showed how editorials in Science have evolved from detached, polite disagreement to no-names-used disavowal to the forceful “Trump lied about science” Thorp published last week. Thorp wrote that editorial after hearing journalist Bob Woodward’s recording of a February 2020 interview with President Donald Trump, first released publicly last week, in which the president explained that he preferred to downplay what he knew about the deadly virus in order to prevent public panic.
The proverbial gloves came off.
“When I write my editorials, I think about the scientists or the health care workers who have worked long hours, isolating themselves from their families so they don’t infect anyone,” Thorp said. “And when I turn the TV on and see their government undermining the very work they are doing — what would they want their journal to be saying to them?
“The psychic devastation of hearing your president say he’s been lying, while you have been called ‘deep state’ or accused of not wanting to give people hope or that you’re part of some kind of conspiracy — to hear in his own voice that all of that was manufactured on purpose is the most devastating thing I think has happened in my lifetime in terms of the relationship of science and government.”
It has evoked uncommon response from others in the scientific community, too, a community that typically has stayed far from the political fray to prevent any confusion that scientific expertise is merely glorified political rhetoric.
On Wednesday, the magazine Scientific American veered from its 175-year history of political non-engagement to endorse Trump’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden. (Full disclosure: Biden is a graduate of UD.)
The journal Science is owned by the non-profit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and as such cannot endorse political candidates, Thorp said.
“But I’m seeing the scientific community willing to speak out and deviate from its hands-off behavior in the past,” Thorp said. “In my opinion, this is enough of an emergency that we should be doing that.”
And, he said, that applies to any political leader.
“It’s a big deal that this is happening,” he said, “but the trick is not so much what’s going on now, but two years from now — have we gone back to the way things were or are we addressing these challenges?”
Scientists have never had any shortage of opinion. But they recognize that their views must be delivered with data and research and they understand that their conclusions are not permitted to live in a vacuum. The scientific method imposes rigorous scrutiny and careful review of underlying assumptions, methodology and the findings presented. These debates are essential to advancing science with facts, not fantasy.
Public political debate, on the other hand, has been avoided by many researchers. Scientific fact and knowledge exist within a political context — as all of life does — but they do not bow to the pleasure and demands of a given administration or political agenda.
“This disengagement we felt we should hold all these years from the political process hasn’t served us well,” Thorp said. “We have environmental degradation and dismantling of our public health infrastructure. It has allowed climate change denial and creationism to flourish and has had terrible effects on science education…. We’ve all been so busy generating graphs and sending them to journals like ours and staying outside the arena.
“The myth of apolitical science is crumbling in front of us,” he said.
Response to his most recent editorial has been vigorous, he said, but nothing like the blowback he experienced when he wrote about racial justice.
“That is discouraging but not surprising to those who have experienced the kinds of discrimination we have been talking about,” he said. “… We have had an excellent string of editorials, letters and perspectives about racism in science and how to address it, as well as using our wattage to shine a light on people and fields so that people know Science is a place where we would love to hear from them. We have a long way to go.”
Thorp praised the tireless work of researchers, who have revealed the nature and structure of the novel COVID-19 virus with mind-boggling speed and noted that many proprietary boundary lines gave way to advance the science more quickly than otherwise would be possible.
The structure of the COVID-19 virus with its spikey shape, for example, was published by Science on Feb. 19, just nine days after the research of Barney Graham was submitted and almost a month before the World Health Organization declared it to be a global pandemic. That gave quick traction to much more research.
Top journals — including Science and its for-profit competitors Nature and Cell — agreed to make COVID-19 research articles available to all, subscription free, he said. “Pre-print” articles also were made available, allowing real-time access while the peer-review process was underway.
With so many crises unfolding at once, UD’s Charles G. Riordan, vice president for research, scholarship and innovation, asked Thorp what keeps him up at night.
“It’s more the dizzying force of all the things that come across the screen that I’m watching you on right now,” Thorp said. “With the wildfires, climate change, structural racism, COVID, metabolic disease and all this stuff coming all the time — it’s hard to keep the focus on the fact that by creating an enduring scientific record that stands the test of time, we’re doing everything we can do for the world.”
To that end, Thorp started and ended his lecture with gratitude.
“Thank you for all you are doing,” he told his listeners. “Everyone involved in creating knowledge, sharing it — just being the University — is helping us propel the world forward at a time when the truth is desperately needed. Whatever way you’re doing that, thank you.”
The lecture prompted gratitude in Ellen Bloom, a fourth-year doctoral student in biomedical engineering, too. She was thankful that Thorp was the Jefferson lecturer in such a “significant (and tumultuous) year.”
She and others in Prof. Dawn Elliott’s lab received Thorp’s message as much-needed affirmation of their work, she said.
“I loved Dr. Thorp's Jefferson Lecture because of how unbelievably relevant it felt to me as a scientist, and especially as a beginning scientist,” she said. “The state of the world currently, where it feels like both individuals in power and people in our own communities don't want to listen to experts, makes it hard to be a young scientist. Dr. Thorp's comments on the mismanagement of the current administration and the often-misleading translation of science via mainstream media of various political leanings felt validating.”
It was important, too, to hear his call to action, she said.
“As a member of the UD community and as a researcher about to begin my professional career, it feels like committing to opening communication beyond our small circles is more important than ever. Scientific writing and the peer review process trains us to be tentative and circumspect with the strength of a lot of our conclusions and use complex language. I couldn't agree more with Dr. Thorp that it is important for those of us on the side of science to be fierce advocates for scientific truth and make our discoveries accessible to everyone.”
Bloom applauded Thorp’s call for increased diversity and transparency in science publication, too. Thorp said, for example, that one of his goals as editor in chief was to see more research published in Science from universities — including UD — that have not had as much exposure as such places as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Science is collecting and plans to publish information about the demographics of the authors of its papers, he said, to show the diversity (or lack of diversity) represented.
“The work to increase diversity in science has only just begun, and should be asked of everyone, particularly individuals with influence,” Bloom said.
Up close with DENIN Fellows
Before delivering the Jefferson Lecture, Thorp met for an hour with five Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) Fellows, giving them the opportunity to ask him anything. Participating Fellows included Joanne Norris, Elvis Ebikade, Robert Ddamulira, Fatemah Izaditame and Jimmy Murillo Gelvez.
They asked about how to balance academic pursuits and entrepreneurship, the loss of focus on important research such as climate change during the COVID-19 crisis, the treatment of graduate students by those who review and evaluate article submissions, increasing recognition of the value of applied science and making science more equitable.
Thorp has been a champion for inclusion and diversity throughout his career — and now from a different vantage point.
“All of the inequities in higher education around race, gender, sexual orientation, ability — all of those things are present at our journal,” he said. “In a way, we’re the place where a lot of this stuff gets worked out. We have to deal with all of that and we don’t have the greatest story to tell.”
A recent issue of Science that focused on democracy included hard-hitting work on inequity, he said.
“We’re hopeful that over time that will move into the research articles and that people will see that these are topics we want to cover. We’re serious about wanting everyone to publish in Science about any topic.”
He worries, though, that even a high-level journal like Science — with its rigorous expert review — doesn’t reach the masses the way one Facebook misinformation effort might. Sure, he said, more than two million people downloaded a Science article on how wearing a mask protects against transmission of the COVID-19 virus. But many millions more are drawn to the anti-mask, anti-science voices on Facebook, where wild conspiracy theories are disseminated, swallowed and infecting an unsuspecting public.
“We’re looking for papers about what we can do about that,” he said.
About the Jefferson Lecture
The Jefferson Lecture is named in honor of Edward G. Jefferson, the late chairman and chief executive officer of DuPont, a UD trustee emeritus and UD benefactor. The lecture is endowed by a gift from the Unidel Foundation.
About Holden Thorp
H. Holden Thorp became editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals on Oct. 28, 2019. He previously was provost at Washington University in St. Louis, from 2013 to 2019, and chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, from 2008 through 2013. He holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with highest honors from UNC, a doctorate in chemistry from Caltech and did postdoctoral work at Yale. In his research career, Thorp studied electron-transfer reactions of nucleic acids and developed technology for electronic DNA chips. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. Thorp also is the coauthor, with Buck Goldstein, of two books on higher education: Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century (2010) and Our Higher Calling: Rebuilding the Partnership Between America and its Colleges and Universities (2018).