The coronavirus crisis is dominating the attention of the global media, governments and the public. Never before can I recall a science story making front page news worldwide, repeatedly, on a daily basis, for an extended period of time.
Why is science important? Our world depends on it. The current pandemic has highlighted this. But it shouldnâ€™t take a crisis to make the public aware that science and engineering underpins everything we take for granted in life â€“ our health and our economy.
Public understanding of the role of scientists and engineers in the real world is currently being fuelled by news coverage on disease research and statistics, the need for diagnostic testing, potential treatments and vaccines, and urgent calls for medical equipment.
However, there is a long way to go and a lot more that can be done.
Both scientists and engineers have a much wider role in society that is helpful to this crisis than where media attention is currently focused. For example, agricultural scientists are helping to improve the resilience of supermarket food supply chains and engineers have much more to offer than ventilator production (e.g. building the first NHS Nightingale hospital in just 9 days).
I recall a time a few years ago, at an international agriculture roundtable discussion, where we debated the problem of how public opinion on food security wouldnâ€™t change until such time that supermarket shelves were stripped of household favourites â€“ a situation that no-one expected to come so soon, but one that the scientific community was already preparing for.
So why are scientists and engineers often overlooked under non-crisis circumstances? Because science is perceived as â€˜tomorrowâ€™s opportunityâ€™. Even now, the media focus is on frontline NHS workers, because they are closer to what the public sees and understands about what is essential to healthcare.
This is not to downplay the roles of our doctors and nurses, who are indeed performing courageous, worthy and selfless roles, but it is equally important to recognise that without scientists and engineers (no food, drugs, tests, and medical equipment), frontline services would be powerless, capable of merely watching from the sidelines as more people suffer and die. And letâ€™s not forget, science and engineering disciplines are also responsible for the internet, which this crisis has highlighted as another essential service, given the reliance on interconnectivity of everyone and everything in the modern world. Only science and technology hold the key to any long-term solution to this crisis, and indeed many of the worldâ€™s wider socioeconomic problems.
There has been much criticism about various governmentsâ€™ lack of preparation, but if we donâ€™t think about tomorrowâ€™s problems today, we will never be prepared. We need to be more proactive during business as usual as opposed to just reactive during a crisis.
At a time when UK science and engineering is facing a severe skills shortage, increasing their media publicity in a way that affords improved social status (instead of portrayal as geeks or madmen), is especially important today, when roles in management and administration, sports and entertainment bring more accolades. If employment benefits were better aligned with productivity and value creation, incentivising highly skilled yet undervalued scientific and technological professions, this could help attract tomorrowâ€™s scientific leaders. Such actions are imperative for the countryâ€™s future preparedness and global economic prosperity.
When this crisis is over, perhaps scientists and engineers will command greater respect in society, and they can work together more effectively with journalists and the Government to improve public understanding of science, which may in turn inspire a future generation of researchers and innovators.
How can the British Library Help?
The British Library is one of the world's greatest research libraries, and the nation's most extensive source of published scientific information.
Although the Libraryâ€™s Reading Rooms are currently closed, you can access a wide range of digital resources on our website. Registered Readers can also access BioOne science journals and other content by logging into our remote e-resources.
Dr Devaki Bhatta FRSC
Bioscience entrepreneur and member of the British Library Advisory Council