Missing the point

As we explore the idea of maximizing science for impact, it is useful to look for examples we can learn from. This chapter explores cases where a developing crisis that has strong scientific underpinnings is unfolding, yet we fail to use these to inform a proper reaction to solve the crisis.

As we will see, a key common thread, is the misalignment of missions. On one side, we have the research incentive where a scientist is trained and rewarded for understanding the process itself on scarce and restrictive funding mechanisms that prioritize the quickest and most likely to succeed fields. On the other hand, we have complex multi-factor multi-stakeholder unknown pathways to solve the crisis, that must include not only research and scientific understanding, but also deal with social taboos, profit incentives, public perceptions, and political capital.

We could, for example, talk about scurvy—a disease that killed millions of sailors on long sea trips and often a substantial percentage of the crew—forcing people to abandon ships, reroute, or cancel ongoing expeditions. On Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the world in 1619-1522, half the crew died from it, and it is estimated many more would have been it not for other causes, likes fights or storms[i]. Today, we know this terrible and widespread disease in sailors’ results from Vitamin C deficiency. Throughout history, however, the prevention and cure of scurvy has been known and forgotten many times and consisted of simply eating citric fruits (like lemons or oranges) or fresh meat. In 1747 James Lind, a Scottish physician, scientifically proved that to be the case with a clinical trial and published it in a few paragraphs within a long and complex book in 1753 (A Treatise on the Scurvy). Yet, the prevailing knowledge was that it was a consequence of the sailor’s hard life. Moreover, the logistics and economic pressures to supply fresh fruits to all ships prevented any significant change informed on this scientific knowledge. Meanwhile, the academic leadership remained unscientifically stubborn with lifestyle explanations and against accepting the evidence and historical cures of citric and fresh meat. This included the highest institutions, such as the president of the Royal Academic Society (1772-1778), Sir John Pringle, who blamed scurvy on bad digestion that could be cured drinking malt. Science as a body of knowledge had proven and registered the right answer, but there was no real impact or mechanism to implement a solution. Not until 1795, when a British admiral, guided by the rumors and ineffectiveness of the prevailing treatment, used his authority to order a daily ration of lime juice on his four-month-long trip. The ship arrived with no trace of scurvy, which prompted a Navy-wide policy to secure and supply large quantities of lemon juice. The health improvement of the crew and strategic advantage to the fleet operations played a critical role to the Royal Navy against enemies, that had yet to implement this simple but effective measure. In this case, the scientific corpus of knowledge knew about it, but lacked the power or implementation strategy to drive impact from the knowledge. It could only wait and confirm the effectiveness when the change happened through other means.

We will now explore in detail two cases: the crisis of the AIDS discovery in the USA, and the ongoing global climate change crisis. In the following chapter, we will explore the reality of “Moonshot” thinking, a term that is often related to scientific and technological endeavors that have deep impacts on society. Lastly, we will look at cases where we succeed to solve scientifically rooted cases. Together, we then explore lessons learned and how we can help maximize the positive impact.

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