To Combat Coronavirus, Scientists Are Also Breaking Down Barriers

In a conference room in Washington, D.C., a dozen epidemiologists huddle over a computer monitor. On the screen, a map of self-reported data from test labs around the world shows a lethal strain of avian influenza originating in Asia.

They summon their colleagues — data scientists, economists, and sociologists. What could happen if the pathogen isn’t contained? They build a series of simulations. The U.S. poultry trade will be impacted, as will soybean farmers. Travelers from Asia will need to be monitored; a new vaccine might need to be produced. An alert goes out so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can prepare.

That’s a hypothetical example of what an infectious disease forecasting center, housed inside the U.S. government, might do. Staffed with a crack team of interdisciplinary researchers focused on viruses and their social and economic impacts, it could detect, model, and disseminate critical information to U.S. leaders about how to handle major disease outbreaks much like the coronavirus pandemic we’re experiencing now.

The center, however, doesn’t exist. Caitlyn Rivers, a former epidemiologist with the U.S. Army who is now a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, was among the experts who first discussed the idea during the Obama administration, though it never came to pass. (The forecasting center was a separate idea from the biological defense unit within the National Security Council that the Obama administration set up in 2016, which was folded into another office by President Trump in 2018.) Rivers floated it again in a recent report for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, where she has been working with economists, physicians, and regulatory experts on road maps for reopening parts of the economy now shuttered by the pandemic.

Collaboration between researchers across diverse fields is a critical part of the response to the coronavirus crisis, and it would be key to preparing for them, too. “When there are infectious disease emergencies, there are so many kinds of questions for scientists to answer, and that interdisciplinary focus is so important,” she said.

Although that forecasting center never came to pass, academics and government researchers say that interdisciplinary collaboration is now happening a remarkable level in the face of the urgent coronavirus threat. Across the board, the pandemic triggered an explosion in academic research: A Reuters analysis from early February estimated that at least 153 scientific studies probing the disease were posted or published within the first 50 days since the start of the outbreak in China. Health journals are now fielding three to five times the normal number of submissions. Presented with not only a mysterious disease but also a massive economic, environmental, social, and psychological disruption, many scientists say that they are also reaching across traditional departmental boundaries more before.

“When you have a global problem like this, you get more possibilities to see how our fields are connected to each other,” said Dario Caro, a microbiologist at Denmark’s Aarhus University. He recently co-authored a paper linking the high rate of coronavirus death in Northern Italy to the thick smog and particulate matter in the region’s industrial cities — the first he’d ever published with medical specialists. The colleagues joked that they would coin a name for the new discipline they were pioneering: “immune-environment.” (Unfortunately, it appears the term is already taken by cancer researchers.)

Connecting environmental and social characteristics to medical conditions is nothing new, of course. Curious minds have been doing it since the day John Snow found the contaminated water pump at the heart of London’s 1852 cholera outbreak, and probably earlier than that. Plenty of researchers whose specialty lies at the intersection of science and society pair up with colleagues in other departments all the time.

“For me, it is already the norm,” said Eugenia South, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who studies the health effects of urban neighborhoods. Past research has found her in partnership with epidemiologists, criminologists, urban planners, health economists, ethnographers, and many other specialists far from the medical school.

Yet it’s common for modern-day academics to be siloed in their work, South said. That’s not necessarily for lack of curiosity: Incentive structures built into academic research funding encourage people to stay in their lanes. A 2016 study published in Nature found that, of 18,476 research proposals submitted to a national academic grant program in Australia over five years, “the higher degree of interdisciplinarity, the lower the probability of being funded.” The more developmental psychologists teamed up with environmental biologists, or the more climatologists teamed up with geospatial scientists, in other words, the less likely they were to win financial support.

“We’re not really supposed to work freely on whatever we want, despite the perception,” said Mauricio Santillana, the director of the Harvard University’s Machine Intelligence Lab and a professor at the medical school. “We have to get grants and create deliverables.”

As a mathematician specializing in big data and computer modeling, Santillana is now in high demand. He’s working with climate scientists to model how temperature changes and other atmospheric conditions work to transmit Covid-19. But he’s also collaborating with economists to look at job losses and other financial impacts across the U.S., and with social scientists to examine how misinformation related to the disease spreads on Twitter, Facebook and other internet media. “I had some contact with people in these areas, but now they’re active research areas for me, too, that were not before,” Santillana said. Grant proposals for several of these interdisciplinary projects are in the works.

Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, has observed the same pattern. “The urgency of the situation has compelled many researchers who previously didn’t intersect to reach out to one another to pose novel questions that cross disciplinary boundaries,” he wrote in an email. Etienne Krug, the director of a program at the World Health Organization that oversees noncommunicable diseases and injury prevention, also senses a new aura of openness and curiosity among the research community — “but this is just my own feeling,” he wrote in an email.

Indeed, measuring any trend in interdisciplinary research won’t be possible until we know which proposals ultimately receive grants and funding, said David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer and information science at Northeastern University and one of Santillana’s new collaborators. Like South, partnering with colleagues across other fields is part of Lazer’s normal work. While he believes the practice is surging, many projects are still being formed in home offices and basements where researchers are sheltering, so it’s hard to say for certain.

“Ultimately it’s about the data,” Lazer said. “But I do think that there is a recognition that this is about people solving a problem, not about accomplishing things in their own discipline. And I think that’s the correct priority.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration is happening within scientific research centers of the federal government, if belatedly. Dylan George, the vice president of technical staff at In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA, said that he has seen an unprecedented level of coordination between the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services to bring in a diversity of outside expertise to inform the government’s response to the pandemic.

Yet George, a former White House adviser and DHHS research manager specializing in biological threats, believes the U.S. ought to fostering more scientific cross-pollination so that it’s better prepared for future pandemics, especially in terms of the country’s technological abilities. Along with Rivers, he was one of the leading experts who devised the idea for the epidemic forecasting center during the Obama administration, which would be similar to the way the National Weather Service monitors the atmosphere, builds weather models, and disseminates predictions.

“If you had a hurricane that was barreling down on Florida, you wouldn’t run out and get a handful of academics to come tell you to set up a model and where to put resources and where to respond,” he said. “We have professionals whose day job it is to do that, and a whole system to enable to do what they do, but we’re not doing that with a pandemic in the same way.”

As an example of the pitfalls of this reactive stance, George pointed to the array of post-facto epidemiological models for coronavirus, employed by leaders in different parts of the country, that point to vastly divergent outcomes. One centralized model, prepared and vetted by a range of dedicated experts, could have helped response teams move faster, he said.

The surge in academic research during the pandemic, interdisciplinary or not, is not without its drawbacks. For one, there seems to be a gender divide in who is able to perform academic labor right now: A number of journal editors have said that that an outsize share of recent paper submissions are coming from men, since women scientists, like women in all fields, appear to be bearing a greater share of childcare and household duties. And though the frenzy in research is producing more papers than ever, observers have warned about the risk of more inaccuracies, whether in vaccine trials or hypotheses about the origins of the new virus.

Yet whether they are in government or academia, scientists ought to be breaking down disciplinary barriers, said Alfred Morabia, a professor of epidemiology at Queens College at the City University of New York and the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Public Health. “There has long been a schism between the individual-focused approach of the clinician and the population-focused approach of epidemiologists,” he said. “This idea that populations have different qualities than the individuals that compose them, that populations are predictable and comparable — all of those concepts were rarely understood. Now they’re at the center of discussion.”

They’re also converging with patient-focused medical practices, Morabia said, as millions are told to stay at home, wear masks outside, and wash hands to protect the health of others in the community.

These convergences are happening not a moment too soon: From structural racism to economic inequality to climate change, the world’s thorniest problems can only be solved with intersectional thinking, Morabia, South, Shaman, and others said. The stark racial disparity emerging in coronavirus death rates in the U.S. is one example, especially since low-income people of color are also also overexposed to the coming disasters of climate change, Morabia said. The coming challenge of rebuilding communities that are healthy, socially equitable, and sustainable will require a holistic mindset that involves more proverbial walks across campus — after all, doctors and scientists can’t reach vulnerable populations if they don’t understand how these communities think, in the way sociologists, psychologists, or community leaders might.

Yet Morabia struck a hopeful note. After coronavirus, “I think it’s going to happen,” he said. “The public has changed, medicine and public health are more hand in hand than ever, and policy will follow. I’m confident about that.”

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