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Issue 100: Hitting the century and science communication in the time of COVID-19

11 Apr 2022

Issue 100: Hitting the century and science communication in the time of COVID-19

One of the many things that was never on my personal radar was the idea of being a weekly columnist. But here we are at number 100! The idea of writing on ‘all things infection and immunity’ came from Rebecca Elliott, who heads our communications effort and has been my editor. The first appeared on 6 April, 2020, and the fact we’re not at 104 reflects that we did take time out over Christmas and New Year. The articles have largely referred to COVID, though I’ve just taken a break to write a bit about the Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV). JEV is an older and much simpler problem: the virus changes very little and there have long been good vaccines available.

Most of my adult life has been spent as a laboratory-based experimentalist researching the complexities of infection and immunity. But I’ve also been a writer, and attribute some of my success in science to the fact that I link ideas in ways that may sometimes be unfamiliar. According to the Web of Science database, my active research career led to more than 500 co-authored research papers or reviews, so the great body of my published work has been technical, rigorously (and anonymously) peer-reviewed and directed at a knowledgeable academic audience.

Since the Nobel Prize (1996) and being Australian of the Year (1997), I’ve also become increasingly involved in public science communication. Beyond my specialist field of viral immunity, that led to my reading into – and being involved at the discussion and committee level – with what I regard as the defining science-based issue of our time, anthropogenic climate change. That hasn’t featured in any way in these essays, but it was a more or less prominent theme in five of the six books I published between 2005 and 2018 on ‘science and the scientific life’. Of those, only one, Pandemics: what everyone needs to know – a Q&A text – seriously addressed the basics of infection and immunity. And the only reason I wrote that chapter was because my editor insisted! Why was I avoiding my own area of expertise? Basically, it’s hard to write about for a lay audience!

Biology is massively complicated. Have you noticed that, while we refer to the ‘laws’ of physics, and maybe chemistry, nobody goes on about the ‘laws’ of biology? Our most basic premise is the ‘theory of evolution’. Evolution is the reason that biology is so complex. Though the laws of physics apply at the most fundamental level, the problem is that biological systems are not ‘engineered’ from first principles. Evolution takes what’s already there as its starting point. In fact, biology makes no sense unless it’s approached through the prism of evolution, an insight I first learned from the writings of Sir MacFarlane Burnet, the other Australian who was awarded (in 1960) a Nobel Prize for his theoretical contributions to understanding immunity.

As we’ve watched what’s happened with SARS-CoV-2 over the past two years, we’ve all been seeing evolution at work. One of the things I got wrong as I started to think about COVID-19 was to greatly underestimate the speed of evolutionary change that we’ve seen with this virus. Is that because this is the first time the tools of modern molecular science have been used to analyse a global, ‘virgin soil’ pandemic caused by a novel respiratory pathogen? My best hope is that, if I get to write number 200 in this series, I’m not still going on about COVID-19!

Writing the first 40 or so of these was fun, as I retold some good stories I’d known for a long time and played with some, at times, outlandish analogies as I tried to explain the science of viral immunity. Still online, these are also reproduced in An Insider’s Plague Year. The main reason for buying that would be to cross-reference some of the basics when reading the later essays. As they progressed, I thought it was necessary to review some areas I did not know well, like the nature of clinical trials, and to talk more about vaccines and drugs. Writing these was sometimes a chore, and what also became frustrating with the 800+ word format was the need to keep repeating some of the basics. I apologise to informed readers if that became a bit boring. It’s easier to write a 3,000 to 4,000 word book chapter!

Then I also became committed to writing for a much shorter format, Twitter, (@ProfPCDoherty) which is a great way of drawing people’s attention to articles from newspapers, blogs (including Setting it Straight) and open-access science publications. I also used Twitter to do whatever I could to back-up the Australian public health response to COVID, including the case for vaccination. The last thing anyone needs in a public health emergency is confusing, mixed messaging.

That has been an interesting educational experience! Being on Twitter has taught me a great deal about the strength and limitations of the human condition, especially when it comes to dealing with complexity based in relative-risk scenarios. Many of us, it seems, hate even the thought of change. But scientists like me live with the reality that: the only certainty is change!

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