The ceiling of innovation -Express Tribune

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Dr Francis Collins, the head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the governmental organisation primarily responsible for biomedical and public health research in the country, is stepping down after a decade. Regarded as one of the successful leaders of the large and influential organisation, he reflected on his time, particularly in the context of the pandemic in an interview last week. One particular statement caught my eye. When asked by the interviewer and veteran journalist Judy Woodruff what he wished NIH had done (differently), Dr Collins responded that he thought they “under-invested in research in human behavior. I never imagined a year ago that there would be 60 million people who refused/declined to get the vaccine because of misinformation & disinformation”.

This is a remarkable statement from the head of an agency that has had a direct role in technology development for vaccine research for this pandemic and countless other diseases. It is a reminder that one can develop the latest technologies, but these technologies alone would fail to get us over the line. It is a clear admission that science alone cannot help us solve some of the most pressing challenges, even when the challenges are rooted in diseases and public health. The problem of ignoring or disregarding human behaviour is not in the US alone. It is universal. The vaccination rates in Pakistan may be better than some countries but are poorer than many others. We all know someone who refuses to get vaccinated, or has never worn a mask, or still believes that this is a global conspiracy. I was informed yesterday of two people, who despite testing positive, continued to come to their offices and never once wore a mask. Plenty of people in their immediate circles got ill subsequently.

These people are all around us, and dismissing them outright as fools or uneducated is both naïve and counterproductive. We like to live in black and white worlds, where we make general assumptions about large groups of people (criminal, unpatriotic, lazy, etc) and try to live in that simple world. Often, we find out that it was who we were lazy in our assumptions.

The point is not to defend anti-vaccination movement, or condone its actions. Not at all. I believe that their actions put themselves and everyone around them at risk. The point is: why do so many people act in such a way? What is driving them to dismiss some information and data while gravitating towards other pieces of information? Why do they listen to some groups and not the others?

The answers to this will not come from the lab, from the manufacturing plant or from a computer model. It will come from prioritising humanities and social sciences for a better, safer and a kinder world. A process that will require us to rethink about issues that matter. There is a lot we need to learn about ourselves and our fellow human beings, but our investment priorities are misaligned. There is little doubt that humanities and social sciences remain woefully under-funded. This is true in the US, in Europe and certainly in Pakistan. Social scientists and humanists struggle to get their research projects off the ground because there is a sense that their research in history, anthropology, sociology, economics or any other field is less relevant for the nation’s future. They struggle because we are told that the future is in IT, in electric vehicles, in nanotechnology and in vaccines. But after two years of the pandemic, we should know that even ground-breaking scientific discoveries will fail to save us if we do not get to know who we are.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2021.