When the pandemic slammed into our lives, Washington state’s scientists mobilized and responded.
Scientists at the University of Washington, Washington State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and many others pivoted quickly to coronavirus-related research.
They examined the complexities of the virus, potential vaccines, treatments for those who got sick and methods of prevention. They looked at the pandemic’s effects on food supplies and security, on our communities’ economic vitality and on routine health screenings and care. Scientists in our state modeled the spread of the coronavirus across the U.S. and are researching its disparate impact on communities of color.
All this activity has taken place even as scientists themselves were affected by the pandemic. Research was paused, and some labs were closed because of stay-home recommendations. Scientists lost the ability to conduct some clinical trials. Employees were laid off and graduate students lost momentum in their dissertation work.
Many female scientists face even greater challenges. Their research and grant-writing productivity suffered during the lockdown phase of the pandemic as they grappled with caregiving responsibilities at home.
Washington has long been recognized for the strength of its science-based economy and typically ranks among the highest in the nation for the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs. Our two Tier 1 research universities together brought in more than $575 million in National Institutes of Health research grants in 2020. PNNL had a payroll of $530 million in fiscal year 2020. Our aerospace and information technology sectors are national leaders and conduct a tremendous amount of scientific research.
It would be easier to pinpoint something Washington scientists aren’t involved in than to list the range of activity taking place in the state. Researchers and scholars are working to make us healthier, to make the world safer, to find new forms of energy and ways to use and store it, and to protect Earth’s ecosystems, to name a few.
For all of the above, we would like to say thank you to scientists in Washington and throughout the world. Thank you for the work you’ve done that has helped adapt to life in the era of COVID-19. Without it, the world would be a bleak place today.
We are also deeply concerned that science, which should be largely apolitical, has been ensnared in the country’s culture wars and political divisions. Science is a quest for knowledge that evolves as scientists test and retest assumptions and conclusions. Science is a way of trying to understand the world and our place in it.
The fact that scientific observations sometimes lead to inconvenient recommendations such as the need to wear masks, get vaccinated or reduce fossil-fuel emissions is not a sensible reason to criticize the scientific enterprise or those who work in it. That would be akin to blaming your physician if you need to use crutches because you broke a leg.
So, we hope it’s understandable that we bristle when people misinterpret and vilify science and scientists to score political points, while the same science is informing policy decisions intended to protect people’s health.
We are living through difficult times. Our hope is that we can recognize and celebrate the important work scientists are doing in Washington and around the world. The results of their search for new knowledge will continue to make life better for us all.