May 21, 2020

Axios Science

Welcome back to Axios Science. Three years ago, I launched this newsletter as one of the first big Axios experiments to see if our style would work beyond topics like politics and tech.

  • One of the best pieces of feedback I got: "I didn't think Axios style would work for astrophysics, but it does!"
  • So I'm very excited to be bringing the newsletter back. There's an urgent need for understanding science — how it's done and what it tells us.
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Today's newsletter is 1,808 words, a 7-minute read.

1 big thing: The speed (limits) of science

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Scientists are responding to the coronavirus pandemic at breakneck speed, testing vaccines and dozens of treatments, but there are hard limits to how fast science can produce the answers we need.

Why it matters: The full-throttle pace of pandemic science is likely here to stay and could carry over to other fields. That means getting comfortable with the limits and drawbacks of such speed to inform the response to this crisis — and prepare for the next one.

What’s happening: Genetic sequencing, AI tools, collaborations and preprint servers where researchers publish their work before it is peer-reviewed are all fueling the rapid accumulation of information about SARS-CoV-2.

  • 10 days after the coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, researchers in China published the sequence of the virus genome. (During the 2003 SARS outbreak, samples of the virus took weeks to arrive from China, and sequencing cost more and took even longer.)
  • The genetic evolution of SARS-CoV-2, seen in more than 4,300 samples from around the world, is being used to track changes in the virus.
  • New approaches to developing vaccines have already put a handful of vaccine candidates into clinical trials.
  • AI is being used to more quickly assess and adjust treatments for the disease.

The catch: The speed of science in this pandemic has raised concerns about the quality of what is being published and the possibility that unreviewed early research could feed into disinformation (though some argue the benefits outweigh the drawbacks).

  • And it can be hard to make sense of the sheer quantity of science being done and data produced. Scientists are creating new tools to keep up with the deluge of information.

The big picture: The automation of experiments and the ability to amass vast datasets are already altering the fundamental practice of science in areas from astronomy to biology, raising tensions between information and knowledge. In a pandemic, there is the added pressure of doing no harm, as the debate over hydroxychloroquine demonstrates.

  • Early reports suggested the drug was an effective treatment, causing prescriptions to spike and encouraging the stockpiling of it around the world.
  • But hydroxychloroquine is still undergoing clinical trials and, so far, there is no substantial evidence it is effective. The FDA cautions it carries risks for some people.

Another open question is how much immunity people have after being infected with SARS-CoV-2.

  • "Reinfection is a story that simply can't be told without time," says Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

What to watch: One way to eke out more from science when a crisis unfolds is to be ready before the crisis begins.

  • National security should be expanded to include health security, and international scientific collaborations that are fueling the speed of pandemic science should be supported in preparation for the next crisis, health security expert Gigi Gronvall of Johns Hopkins University argues in a new paper.
  • Dario Gil, director of IBM Research and a member of President Trump's science advisory council, is calling for the creation of a reserve corps of scientists to address crises. (See below.)
  • Bill Gates is investing in manufacturing facilities for seven different potential vaccines, acknowledging some won't pan out.

The bottom line: Understanding the limits and drawbacks of speedy science matters now more than ever because in crises — of which there will certainly be more — the stakes are even higher.

Read the full story.

Bonus chart: Divided trust in scientists
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

Overall trust in scientists has grown in the U.S. over the past year, but that is driven by a partisan gap, according to a Pew Research Center survey released today.

  • 53% of Democrats polled in late April reported a "great deal of confidence in medical scientists to act in the public interests," compared to 37% in 2019.
  • The percentage of Republicans who said the same held steady from last year (32%) to this year (31%).

What they're saying: When asked to rate how well medical experts understand who is most at risk for serious illness from the coronavirus, about one-third of respondents said experts understand the issue very well and 52% said fairly well.

  • 23% of people in the survey said public health experts understand very well how to control the spread of the virus.
  • More Democrats gave a high rating to experts than Republicans, especially when it came to the question of social distancing: 31% of Democrats vs. 15% of Republicans.
2. A plan to prep for the next crisis

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, IBM's 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 Reserves being feasible:

"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."

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."

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."
3. A surge in children seeking mental health care

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Emergency departments aren't prepared for the huge increase in children seeking mental health care, according to a recent study.

The big picture: Even before the coronavirus pandemic — which is expected to exacerbate the problem — there was exponential growth in hospital visits by children for mental health emergencies, Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

What they did: The team at Nationwide Children's Hospital examined data from 2007 to 2016 for children aged 5–17 who visited emergency departments for a mental or behavioral disorder (this did not differentiate if it was the primary or secondary reason for the visit).

What they found: Overall, the number of kids' visits remained stable over the decade, but those presenting with mental health disorders rose 60%.

  • Visits from children with deliberate self-harm, which includes attempted suicide, cutting and ingestion, jumped by 329%.
  • Those related to substance use disorder increased by 159%, but alcohol-related disorders dropped 39%.
  • They were unable to see the exact type of substances being abused, but there was a particularly high jump from 2014 to 2016 "that kind of falls in line with the opioid epidemic that we're facing right now," says Charmaine Lo, co-author of the study in the journal Pediatrics and senior research scientist at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

However, they found a dearth in preparedness to properly handle the children who come in with these needs, partly because they were not pediatric-focused facilities or were in rural areas without training.

  • The National Pediatric Readiness Project reports less than half of EDs are prepared to treat children, Lo adds.

What they're saying: "While I know these findings are sad, the good news is that they're seeking help. ... Now, there's less stigma," Lo says.

  • But "every emergency department needs to be prepared to take care of the kids," she adds.

What's next: Lo says all emergency departments — rural, metropolitan, pediatric and non-pediatric — need to educate their providers with mental health-specific training and utilize current tools.

4. Worthy of your time

Plumes of volcanic ash and rock rise from Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Photo: Gary Braasch/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Sensors, satellites and AI: The new science of volcanoes (Jane Palmer — Nature News)

  • The eruption of Mount St. Helens 40 years ago this week was "a turning point for volcanic science, sparking a huge influx of money and people into the field and setting the stage for rapid improvements in understanding," Palmer writes.

Crisis in the Amazon (Andres Schipani and Bryan Harris — FT)

  • Indigenous groups in Brazil face “an extreme threat to their very survival” from the coronavirus.

NASA names dark energy telescope for Nancy Grace Roman (Dennis Overbye — NYT)

  • Roman, who joined NASA in 1959, became the agency’s first chief astronomer and led the development of the Hubble Space Telescope. 
5. Something wondrous

A bumblebee worker damaging a plant leaf. Photo: Hannier Pulido, De Moraes and Mescher Laboratories

For tens of millions of years, bees and flowers have evolved together. Flowering provides bees with food, and pollination gives plants a means of reproduction.

What's new: Bumblebee workers appear to be able to control that synchronized symbiosis by damaging the leaves of plants, according to a new study in the journal Science.

What they did: In a set of experiments in the lab and outside, Foteini Pashalidou, Harriet Lambert and their colleagues at ETH Zürich found pollen-starved B. terrestris bees bit holes in leaves, but well-fed bees did not.

  • In another experiment, they placed bees deprived of pollen in mesh cages with either tomato or black mustard plants. They found the speed of flowering increased (one month ahead of schedule for tomatoes and two weeks for black mustard plants).

It's unclear how bees learned this biting behavior and why plants respond by flowering.

  • The researchers compared bites by bees and those made with razors, and they found the damage from bees sped flowering up more than that done mechanically.
  • One possibility is that as bees bite the plant, they inject chemicals that speed up flowering.
"If so, scientists might realize a horticulturist’s dream by deciphering the molecular pathways through which flowering can be accelerated by a full month."
— Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London wrote in an accompanying paper

The big picture: Climate change is threatening the timing of the relationship between plants and bees, and it risks starving bees that are emerging early from hibernation.

  • Bee-inflicted damage may provide resilience to the important relationship between flowering and pollination that is under threat, the authors write.