The less well-off in society, which disproportionately is ethnic minorities, are left without the equipment of facilities to protect themselves from coronavirus. cottonbro, Pexels

Seven months since the first case of ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ was reported in Wuhan, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed science. Labs in industry and academia have halted non-COVID research. Never before have so many experts, across diverse fields and countries, focussed on a single goal; the science of COVID-19 has been faster, more global, more open and, in many cases, more public. But coronavirus has also highlighted some ugly aspects of the status quo: that women in STEM, already underrepresented in scientific publishing, are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic; that medical knowledge is biased towards white people, and men; that political pressures can all too easily lead to the publishing of misleading results; that innovations which should be available for the good of everyone are being monetised and politicised. The pandemic has shown us that science can adapt very quickly, but also that there is a pressing need for further, fundamental change.

Science in crisis

Crises in history have often profoundly impacted science. The first ‘modern’ hospitals were founded in France following the revolution of the 1790s. Darwin’s theory of evolution emerged in the profound social and economic upheaval of the Victorian era. The funding and status of physics rose following its close partnership with state and industry in WWI and WWII. A common theme running through the history of science is that when scientific work proves its importance, its prominence grows. Given that biomedical research has been central in the coronavirus crisis, dominating political discourse and even driving stock markets, it is not difficult to see how this might translate into an increase in funding and prominence of biology. But history also reveals a truth scientists rarely want to admit: science is political. The early French hospitals were in part founded in the ideological rejection of the ancien régime; Darwinism shaped early capitalism, and fed the rise of eugenics; the building of super-colliders became one more race of the Cold War. We only need to look at the headlines to see this being repeated: efforts to develop a vaccine are being overtaken by talks of a biotech ‘arms race’.

“The implicit bias that the male body is the ‘standard’, may have held back effective treatments.”

Science and bias

Far from the common view of scientists as rational and objective observers, history tells us that science is entwined with socio-political context. COVID-19 has highlighted how this opens science to implicit biases; take the controversy in the scientific community surrounding the mandated wearing of masks, which seems to be driven more by arguments over personal liberty than science. A paper made the news in May when it claimed that chloroquine, the malaria drug lauded by President Donald Trump, was not effective as a COVID-19 treatment and actually increased mortality. It took just two weeks for it to be retracted because the journal could not validate the data; given how the whole saga, even in the scientific literature, has been politicised and tied to Trump, it is not difficult to see how implicit bias on the part of the original authors could have affected the results. These might seem like isolated cases of bad science, but biases can also be far more ingrained, affecting whole fields.

In a lecture for Nottingham University in June, Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science, described how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the historic links between science and racism. Take the tragic news that Black men are four times as likely to die of COVID-19 than white men; the media have reacted with shock to these statistics, but as Saini explains, racial health disparity in the UK is not a new phenomenon. Sadly, systemic biases against BAME people in biomedical research, from medical trials and genomic data to the attitudes of the medical profession likely contribute to this. Yet official reports have ignored such biases; instead, researchers are investigating genetic factors that might be at play to explain such a health disparity, even though, as Saini explains, genetic racial differences are not well supported by science. This idea therefore acts as a continuing bias in biomedical research; it may not be obvious, outside or inside the field, but it leads scientists to search for an objective answer even when the question is subjective.

“We cannot hope to challenge biases without understanding how they have been woven into the history of science”

COVID-19 may have exposed how biases influence science, but this criticism is hardly new. Emily Martin, in her 1991 paper Sperm and the Egg, describes how gender bias has influenced historic and current research into human reproduction. We are all taught in biology, even at university, that the sperm takes the active role in fertilising the egg. Yet this does not reflect scientific reality; the egg is just as (if not more) active. The implicit assumption that the ‘male’ contribution will be more important, and more worth investigating, has skewed research. Similarly, scientists predominantly use male rodents for preclinical research, partly because female rodents are seen as more variable (even though they are not). This may seem trivial, but recent work comparing male and female rodents has revealed striking differences; from their response to trauma to experience of pain and even the action of drugs. The implicit bias that the male body is the ‘standard’, may have limited our understanding and held back effective treatments. Far from being one case of bad science, biases have a broad impact on scientific research.

Post-pandemic science: for better or worse?


Mountain View

Decolonising scientific research

COVID-19 has highlighted flaws in current scientific research, but it could also be a catalyst for change. A recent article for the World Economic Forum detailed how COVID-19 could forge permanent changes in biomedical research, such as reforming publishing and funding models. Alongside these practical considerations, we need to consider sociological change. A recent study assessed the work of nearly every PhD submitted in the US from 1982 to 2010 and found that people from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds were more innovative; yet their theses were less likely to gain them academic praise and promotion. Confronting the challenge of making STEM more accessible may help address biases in research, as suggested in the feminist critique of science. Then there is the need for better education in the history and philosophy of science, which are rarely offered to students and often criticised by leading scientists. Yet they are crucial. We cannot hope to challenge racist or sexist biases without understanding how they have been woven into the history and methodology of science; the hierarchical view of society in the 1800s is just as important for understanding Darwin as his journey on the Beagle.

As the pandemic moves into a new stage, we may be at a point of change. But only positive action will ensure real transformation.