Less than a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic , there are already approved emergency vaccines and several are on that path. This advance, described as historical, shows the importance that science has had in these months in which the world has faced uncertainty.
Thus, the Science – unexpectedly – has become one of the main protagonists of a yearthat has posed a challenge to global public health. Epidemiologists, virologists, biologists, among other science professionals, have been the most requested in the media, in an attempt to explain what we are facing. And people have watched scientists work in real time to find safe and effective treatments for diseases.
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El Comercio requested the opinion of three Peruvian experts in research and public health regarding the role that science has played this year and how to take advantage of this opportunity in the country. Here are their opinions:
“There is a new generation of researchers”
– Juan More Bayona, research professor at the University of San Marcos and doctor in comparative immunology from the University of Alberta
Definitely, one of the great lessons that this pandemic gives us is that humanity depends a lot on science, we cannot live without science, it is in all aspects of our lives to a greater or lesser extent. In this case, in health, it becomes more relevant. Unfortunately, in our country science has historically been neglected. Without comparing ourselves to the big leagues, locally, in South America, we are way behind. The good news is that there is a new generation of researchers, some young and others not so young, who are striving to put science at a good level in the country. There is also a generation of communicators who are joining this effort. Hopefully this holds.
– How to take advantage of this opportunity?
Unfortunately, if scientists don’t have a voice in decision-making bodies, we will keep complaining and nothing will change. As the pandemic has shown: if we do not learn, if we do not understand that science is fundamental to all aspects of life, we will continue to be condemned to lack of development. We must learn from this situation, draw lessons, and take action.
“Universities have to measure up”
– Ángela Uyen, doctor and health policy advisor at Doctors Without Borders, based in Belgium
I believe that researchers at the international level and at the national level have worked tirelessly. It has been a year of exceptional scientific production. For example, as a policy advisor, I have to consume science and build strategies to influence public policy. This year it has really been a challenge to keep up with scientific production, and although it is true that we have focused on COVID-19, leaving other issues aside, we have tried to maintain a balance to ensure access to health for all.
The enormous amount of scientific production has also meant a challenge in terms of being selective and being much more diligent about the methodology and conflicts of interest of the articles that have been published. For example, pre-prints [articles without peer review] and study results through press releases have become common practice, and it is important that we put them in perspective, and understand the purpose and limitations of each.
– What opportunities does the pandemic leave?
I think the opportunities are various. For example, it is clear to us that we have a generation of science students who are going to be much more critical of what they read, what they learn, what they hear, and that is very positive. I would have loved it to be like that when I was a student. Now the universities have to keep up. Young people are no longer going to accept a facade in place of a university. And now there is a hunger to generate knowledge and publish from undergraduate. It seems important to me that many young undergraduates today have broken the schemes of looking at the ’eminences or experts’, and can now critically discuss some of their recommendations. That now it is even ‘cool’ to know about epidemiology. That is really inspiring and generates hope.
It is key that public policies are based on evidence, however, let us remember that, in the real world, state actions are guided by various elements, including financing, capacities, the political agenda, etc. These elements will always be present, however, if these actions are not based on evidence, it will be difficult for us to move forward as a country and as a society. Therefore, it is key that decision makers know how to balance these elements.
“There are Peruvian researchers who are generating evidence to make decisions”
– Álvaro Taype-Rondan, epidemiologist and researcher at the San Ignacio de Loyola University
In the world, in countries where there were already important research centers, it has been known to empower them, give them budgets, so that they generate information that can guide decision-making about the pandemic. And this was due to a larger budget because answers were needed to face this crisis. But there is a blurred line between researchers seeking answers and charlatans. In many places, not just here, but in France, for example, some researchers made recommendations based on personal tastes or beliefs. It is a bit difficult for the population to still distinguish between the two: the one who speaks with evidence and the one who does not.
In Peru, the situation has been more headless. Given the lack of references and with the appointment of clinical experts without much research background, recommendations were made without evidence. Most of the decisions made by the Peruvian government have not had a technical basis. In other countries, mathematical modeling was shown, for example, every time a new stage [of reactivation] was announced. Or even some officials in Peru said that we did not have time to do research or questioned whether decisions are made based on data. And, on the other hand, there are Peruvian researchers who are generating evidence to make decisions, but these efforts are divorced from the current political agenda. Those bridges still need to be built.
– What to do to start making evidence-based decisions?
Taking advantage of this opportunity goes two ways: through education and politics. In the first, we have a population that is talking about topics that they did not know, such as clinical trials, epidemiology, etc. This can be used by the media and by the government to be able to give clear messages on the matter and thus educate the population on how to make health decisions. There is evidence that this helps people identify false or unsupported information. And second, on the political side, people are more attentive to what scientists are saying, and it is about time that scientists began to enter politics or be in decision-making positions. This lack of culture in science is what we have inherited and it is something that we must work to change,