May 21, 2020 - Science

How science can prepare us for the next crisis

Photo illustration of IBM head of research Dario Gil with colored blocks and a photo of a researcher with a pipette 

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Courtesy IBM Research

As a geopolitically fractured world faces a pandemic and imagines crises of a similar scale on the horizon, director of IBM Research Dario Gil says the world in this moment needs a Bretton Woods system for science.

The pitch: Drawing on the military's approach to planning for the unexpected, Gil and Harvard theoretical physicist Avi Loeb envision a volunteer Science Readiness Reserves composed of international researchers who would create an infrastructure in advance for sharing information and coordinating scientific resources when emergencies happen.

  • Those emergencies include another pandemic, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, widespread drought or an asteroid impact.

I talked this week with Gil, who is a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and was recently nominated to the National Science Board. He's also a founder and co-chair of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing (HPC) Consortium, which is pooling supercomputing resources from the public and private sectors for coronavirus research.

Some highlights from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:

On the Science Readiness Reserve being feasible:

"Every time we have had major crises in the past, we have seen institutional evolution and sometimes institutional innovation outright. ... If you look back after World War II, the U.S. mobilized the R&D community, and what happened after is we had Los Alamos. We mobilized all this talent ... and Los Alamos became the network of the national laboratories for the U.S.

"Inevitably we're going to see new institutions, but right now we're in the middle, where we only see emergencies.

"I'm optimistic that we can mobilize people to work with each other in a different way to solve problems that really matter. "

Speeding up science in the moment:

"Back to the HPC, we're using supercomputers to shorten the time of this problem. ... You're taking scientific instruments that are high price, and saying, let's aggregate them and prioritize them against the emergency and compress the time to discovery.

"All of a sudden, the committee will meet every day, the science review will happen in the morning, the match to the supercomputers will happen in the afternoon, like we're doing today. The average time from review to your order to the supercomputer is five days instead of months or a year. So you can imagine all sorts of new procedures kick in, as a consequence of sort of exercising of the Reserve."

On science in decision-making:

"If you look at the spheres of power and decision-making around the world, it really has been economic thinking, legal thinking and military thinking that has been the influential basis of decision-making.

"Scientific thinking has not been [part of it]. Scientific thinking is delegated a layer below. When you need the scientists, you call them. They have their domain of expertise, they provide advice. We also understand that scientific thinking is powerful in that they make advances, increase technology and technology impacts society broadly. And we all understand and appreciate that.

"But I think it will be really important to elevate scientific thinking to be commensurate and a co-equal to economic, legal, military thinking in the halls of power. "

"Esther Duflo from MIT took a scientific idea, randomized control trials and applied it to the world of policy. ... I think we could take those kinds of instruments and say here are good tools for everybody, even if you're not a scientist, to look at data and make decisions for policy. And if we could get those more broadly adopted, I think it would go a long way. Because in some ways, good scientific thinking is good thinking."

Go deeper: Chronicle of a pandemic foretold (Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker — Foreign Affairs)

Go deeper