Many people train in science because they are convinced that this is an important route to doing good in the world. We operate on the simple model that science leads to knowledge of how to solve problems and once we have that knowledge the application to policy and management should be reasonably simple. This model is of course wildly incomplete, so if you are a young person contemplating what to do with your life, you should perhaps think very carefully about how to achieve progress. I review here three current examples of failures of science in the timely management of acute problems.
The first and most complex current problem is the Covid-19 pandemic. Since this virus disease became a pandemic more than a year ago, many scientists have investigated how to thwart it. There was spectacular success in developing vaccines and advances in a basic understanding the virus. However, some proposals had no value, and this was often because the scientific papers involved were not yet peer reviewed but were released to the news media as though they were the truth. All the common mistakes of scientific investigation were in clear view, from simple hypotheses with no testing to a failure to consider multiple working hypotheses, to a failure to evaluate data because of non-disclosure agreements. Speed seemed to be of the essence, and if there is a sure way to accumulate poor science it is by means of speed, including little attention to experimental design, probabilities, and statistical analysis. Many books will soon appear about this pandemic, and blame for failures will be spread in all directions. Perhaps the best advice for the average person was the early advice suitable for all pandemics – avoid crowds, wash your hands, do not travel. But humans are impatient, and we await life going “back to normal”, which is to say back to rising CO2 and ignoring the poor.
A second example is the logging of old growth forests. Ecologists all over the world from the tropics to the temperate zone have for the last 40-50 years decried logging practices that are not sustainable. Foresters have too often defended the normal practices as being sustainable with clever statements that they plant one tree for every one they cut, and look out your car window, trees are everywhere. It is now evident to anyone who opens their eyes that there is little old growth left (< 1% in British Columbia). But why does that matter when the trees are valuable and will grow back in a century or two or four? Money and jobs trump biodiversity and promises of governments adopting an “old-growth logging policy” appear regularly, to be achieved in a year or two. The tragedy is written large in the economics where for example in British Columbia the local government has spent $10 billion in the last 10 years supporting the forestry industry while the industry has contributed $6 billion in profits, not exactly a good rate of return on investment, particularly when the countryside has been laid waste in the process. Another case in which economics and government policy has trumped ecological research in the past but the need to protect old growth forests is gaining with public support now.
A third example comes again from medicine, a fertile area where money and influence too often outrace medical science. We have now a drug that is posed to alleviate or reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s, a tragic disease which affects many older people (Elmaleh et al. 2019, Nardini et al. 2021). A variety of drugs have been developed in an attempt to stop the mental deterioration of Alzheimer’s but none so far has been shown to work. A new drug (Aducanumab) is now available in the USA for treatment of Alzheimer’s but it already has a checkered history. This drug seemed to fail its first major trials yet was then approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the USA over the protests of several doctors (Knopman, Jones, and Greicius 2021). Given a cost of thousands of dollars a month for administering this new drug to a single patient, we can see the same scenario developing that we described for the forest industry and old growth logging – public pressure for new drugs resulting in questionable regulatory decisions.
There are several general messages that come out of this simple list. The most important one is that science-on-demand is not feasible for most serious problems. Plan Ahead ought to be the slogan written on every baseball hat, sombrero, Stetson, toque and turban to remind us that science takes time, as well as wisdom and money. If you think we are having problems in the current pandemic, start planning for the next one. If you think that drought is now a problem in western North America, start hedging your bets for the next drought. Sciences moves more slowly than iPhone models and requires long-term investments.
I think the bottom line of all the conflict between science and policy is discouraging for young people and scientists who are doing their best to unravel problems in modern societies and to join these solutions to public policy (González-Márquez and Toledo 2020). Examples are too numerous to list. Necessary policies for controlling climate change interfere with people’s desires for increased global travel but we now realize controls are necessary. Desirable human development goals can conflict with biodiversity conservation, but we must manage this conflict (Clémençon 2021). The example of feral horses and their effects on biodiversity in Australia and the USA is another good example of a clash of scientific goals with social preferences for horses (Boyce et al. 2021). Nevertheless, there are many cases in which public policy and conservation have joint goals (Tessnow-von Wysocki and Vadrot 2020, Holden et al. 2021). The key is to carry the scientific data and our frustration into policy discussions with social scientists and politicians. We may be losing ground in some areas but the present crises in human health and climate change present opportunities to design another kind of world than we have had for the last century.
Boyce, P. N., Hennig, J. D., Brook, R. K., and McLoughlin, P. D. (2021). Causes and consequences of lags in basic and applied research into feral wildlife ecology: the case for feral horses. Basic and Applied Ecology 53, 154-163. doi: 10.1016/j.baae.2021.03.011.
Clémençon, R. (2021). Is sustainable development bad for global biodiversity conservation? Global Sustainability 4. doi: 10.1017/sus.2021.14 2021.14.
Elmaleh, D.R., Farlow, M.R., Conti, P.S., Tompkins, R.G., Kundakovic, L., and Tanzi, R.E. (2019). Developing effective Alzheimer’s Disease therapies: Clinical experience and future directions. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 71, 715-732. doi: 10.3233/JAD-190507.
González-Márquez, I. and Toledo, V.M. (2020). Sustainability Science: A paradigm in crisis? Sustainability 12, 2802. doi: 10.3390/su12072802.
Holden, E., Linnerud, K., and Rygg, B.J. (2021). A review of dominant sustainable energy narratives. Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews 144. doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2021.110955.
Knopman, D.S., Jones, D.T., and Greicius, M.D. (2021). Failure to demonstrate efficacy of aducanumab: An analysis of the EMERGE and ENGAGE trials as reported by Biogen, December 2019. Alzheimer’s & Dementia 17, 696-701. doi:/10.1002/alz.12213.
Nardini, E., Hogan, R., Flamier, A., and Bernier, G. (2021). Alzheimer’s disease: a tale of two diseases? Neural Regeneration Research 16, 1958. doi: 10.4103/1673-5374.308070
Tessnow-von Wysocki, I. and Vadrot, A.B.M. (2020). The voice of science on marine biodiversity negotiations: A systematic literature review. Frontiers in Marine Science 7, 614282. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2020.614282.