The Finite Present of Future Plans

Image: Madrid after lockdown (Reuters)

“The infinite present of no future plans” is a phrase by American journalist Helen Rosner that has been doing the rounds on Twitter.  This probably make sense if we think that the virus has acted as an eraser on a slate. Cities, jobs, lives have been, indeed, wiped clean and sometimes it feels as if the future will never come. However, as countries think of opening up, the present is finite and we can make plans.

Covid time is a long haul with many twists and turns, a crossing that has to be negotiated steadily during which we need to be alert. As Life returns (new normal is a strange term which I despise) we, experimental scientists, are being allowed to go back to our labs and resume projects. It is not going to be easy. A survey of several institutions across the world reveals a variety of schemes, each tailored to the circumstances in the host country and the type of work that needs to be done. In all of them, safety is first and we have to accept that, for now, we shall need to adapt our work to the schedules allowed by the circumstances and the Institutions; working suboptimally under suboptimal conditions. We shall get back to full speed in a few months, perhaps quicker than we think, but for now we need the brakes on. Paraphrasing Dr Fauci the other day in front of a Senate Committee, as scientists, we are humble enough to be aware that we don’t yet know enough about this virus. Watchful caution is on call; there will be time to run.

As we go back to our toilings, we realize that certainty has been taken away from us. Where before we knew what was the next experiment, the next paper, the next meeting, when we were going to go on holiday, apply for a job or see family and friends, now we don’t; uncertainty has taken hold of us and questions arise about the shape and rhythm of our activities, about the future. There is no crystal ball and whatever blueprint we draw about that future it needs to be contingent on many unknowns. However, in that future there are opportunities we should take advantage of.

In my home country, Spain, which has been badly battered, lockdowns and restrictions are being lifted and people are walking out into the streets en masse. This creates unwanted density and to increase surface area for people to spread, particularly in weekends, local governments are cutting off traffic in main arteries of major cities, pedestrianizing them. The same is happening in other countries. Suddenly local governments realize that this is a good move and it is likely that this will remain a feature of the life of a city. We had been too busy to think and too lazy to act on what was obvious: that cities were losing their humanity and hence their purpose. That cars curtail human activity and that now we have a chance to redress this and redefine our relationship with our living space and reclaim it. One suspects that this will extend to travel, where we may have gone overboard; all will have a knock on impact (for good) on the environment.

There are also opportunities lurking in Science. There are actions at the centre of where we have been the last few months that, perhaps, we should make permanent or, at least, use them as a springboard to create a new world of Science, more sensible, one in which discovery takes over from the publication and the hype. Covid has been an eraser to a busy slate and now we have an opportunity to write on it with clarity, avoiding the clutter that we have left behind. Take for example Scientific publishing. In the biological sciences (what I know something about) it had become a runaway hypertrophed system with which nobody other than publishers were happy. A system in which papers are currencies and where, despite the emergence of preprint servers (in particular bioRxiv and the Open Science movement) the finding had become secondary to the hype and the publication. I am not going to repeat the issues that bedevil the system but let us take peer review as a symptom of the disease: it has become the art of lengthening the publication of a piece of work by transforming it from the paper the authors wanted to publish into that which the reviewers would like to publish, and this, sometimes, at a huge personal (for all authors) and financial (for the PIs) cost. We are so busy trawling and writing up our data and, in particular responding to reviewers comments, that we cannot make headway on the important questions of our subject; we often forget what these questions are. Then, Covid comes and, suddenly we cannot do all those experiments that reviewers ask for. So, many journals become understanding and make a call for reviewers to appreciate the situation and request ‘only essential experiments’. Take that: ONLY ESSENTIAL experiments. Should this not be the case all the time? Such statements recognize that before Covid peer review asked for experiments that were not essential. So, what are we doing? Notwithstanding this, I have not yet seen what exactly is defined as an ‘essential experiment’ but this is a statement that needs to be distilled and transformed into action.

What we are seeing is a recognition that what we had before Covid was not right and that inertia was making it worst. We all know this but somehow we have not had a chance to act; now, we do. Part of the problem lies in uneven editorship; whereas some editors do take an active part in the reviewing of a paper (as they should) many just rely on the reviewers with a blind eye to reason. Some initiatives are coming through to try to remedy many of the well-known pathologies of peer review and pre-Covid scientific publishing (see [1]  and [2]). It would be good if the habits that we are slowly adopting in this time, fairer reviews, understanding what a manuscript really is and its purpose, can carry on. Reviewing papers Covid-style should remain the standard for reviewing papers.

There are other features of our system, habits we had acquired that, as we come back into our scientific life, could use adjustments from the perspective of our confinement activities. Conferences and travel are definitely one. No discussion that all the virtual talks and conferences that have emerged are NO substitute for the real thing — to paraphrase a friend, they are non-alcoholic wine to a Rioja — but they have shown their worth, created new communities and allow Science to reach people and places it had not and could not have reached before. The world of scientific conferences was an inflated enterprise with unnecessary repetitions, some exclusivity, too much travel. Now groups are emerging on topic of interest that are accessible to anybody with an interest and they are very successful. We need to see the positives in this and use it to adjust the system of conferences. The Covid online activities are, significantly, creating virtual spaces for the emergence of communities which share interests and that could be used to exchange technology, information, ideas, to work together at a distance. Interdisciplinary work has become a staple in many labs, now we can learn to do more of that across labs in geographically very different places.

Thinking about going back is also making us think about the organization of the Labs. Over the last years bio-labs have become a complex ecosystem in which experimentalists and computational biologists coexist. The confinement is revealing that computational work can be done from home. Some already did this much of the time but the current situation is making the value of this activity more obvious and maybe this is a prelude for a time in which the space and the life of the lab are changed. If computational work were to happen from home, this would free space in labs that can become more hubs for experiments and meetings. Much to mull here as much of the work, at the moment, is facility led with more of the scientist’s input coming (in particular in molecular genetics and biology) in the design and analysis of the experiments than in their execution. Also, as microscopy takes centre stage, there is much to think on how to deploy and integrate it in the context of other tools and systems as well as in working from home. Time to rethink what is Biology, what is work and act.

However, all these opportunities emerge against a background of deep concern and uncertainty about the people who should be their beneficiaries: the younger generation. It is them who should lead the construction of the new realm but it is them who are most at risk of the consequences of the economic impact of Covid. It is no secret that barring a miracle, there is going to be a shortage  of money and positions. At this, it is important that governments recognize what has been the real theme of these past two months: that Science matters, that as Thomas Friedman wrote recently in The New York Times “because Mother Nature is entirely made up of chemistry, biology and physics, she rewards only adaptation strategies grounded in those same raw materials. If your adaptation strategy is grounded instead in ideology or election-year politics, she will mercilessly expose that”. Governments should invest in Science and since Science needs scientists, they should develop scientists. There will be a need for imagination here and the job of the elder scientists should be to help those young people listen to them and guide them away from some of the mistakes that we have done when they create something new. There are challenges ahead and recognizing them we should rise to the challenge. Building bridges between the basic and the applied, where everybody with talent can make a contribution is going to be crucial. In many fields we have not been often clear about these bridges, about the value of basic research in seeding future applications. We are going to have to lean. In these efforts one hopes that those in positions of power help those in difficulty. One trend before we all went home was a growing gap between Institutes and Universities in terms of resources. Universities have as many talented individuals as institutes and it would be great if using the virtual spaces and the opportunities that are emerging with a dose of imagination we could harness the combined potential of the two groups of people. And don’t forget that in doing so we shall bring on board the next generation.

We need to create, invent, make plans for a future in such a way that we don’t miss the opportunities that lie ahead by looking back and trying to return to where we were. As the blueprint of Cities is redrawn in the aftermath of Covid, let us redraw the blueprint of Science.