These have been dark times. For a full year, the Covid-19 pandemic has raged through the nation, claiming 400,000 lives. Throughout that year, our politics was riven with discord, culminating in false claims of a stolen election that led to the horrifying, violent attack on the Capitol building.
It is no overstatement to say that science saved our lives and our hope for the future. And it did so by overcoming all the denialists who attack its validity.
With Joe Biden inaugurated as the new president of the United States on Wednesday and as he begins trying to heal the nation, many Americans look with anxiety to the future. We wonder if our institutions, and our very culture, are so broken that they lie beyond repair. While those fears are based in a reality we cannot ignore, there is another reality that should give us reassurance and hope: the triumph of science.
Throughout all our turmoil, American science has not wavered. Instead, American science in all its forms — the institutions, individuals and culture — has not only remained solid through the crises, but also provided us a path out of the darkness. And now it offers us a profound reminder of the greatness possible when we work together and hold fast to the truth and to our best ideals, as we must do as we enter this new political era.
It is no overstatement to say that science saved our lives and our hope for the future. And it did so by overcoming all the denialists who attack its validity, dismiss its honesty and power, and repeatedly call for its funding to be cut. It is impossible to understate the magnitude of what science achieved in the face of the pandemic.
Vaccines usually take years, if not decades, to develop, but researchers worked tirelessly to deliver lifesaving vaccines in less than 12 months. One of the keys to the rapid vaccine development was the use of mRNA technology, which lives at the cutting edge of genetic science. Rather than the time-consuming process of using inactive virus for vaccines, mRNA works by injecting small snippets of DNA directly into healthy cells, allowing them to quickly develop protections against the disease.
This breakthrough began in Philadelphia. Thirty years ago, Katalin Karikó, a Hungarian immigrant working at the University of Pennsylvania, found her ideas on mRNA rejected by most peers. But with quintessential American tenacity, she refused to give up. In 2005, she and Drew Weissman, also of University of Pennsylvania, published new results confirming mRNA’s promise.
This time, the promise was recognized by others, including researchers who formed a new biotech company in Boston to turn the science of mRNA into disease treatments. That upstart company eventually became Moderna, whose scientists were among those who leapt into action, launching a Herculean effort to pinpoint the disease’s biochemistry, the body’s response, the paths to treatments and finally to create vaccines. In this way, American scientists along with their collaborators across the planet achieved the impossible.
The vaccines weren’t, however, the only example of American science bettering our lives and realizing our dreams in 2020. Artificial intelligence techniques based on Google’s DeepMind, one of the most advanced computer systems in the world, pinpointed breast cancer cells with higher accuracy than doctors — promising a new generation of hyperprecise diagnostic tools for illnesses.
And after years when American astronauts were hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets because we had no next-generation spacecraft, privately owned SpaceX safely launched American astronauts into space using innovative American-designed, American-built rockets. In my own domain of astrophysics, I joined an audacious National Science Foundation project to use football field-size lasers to recreate conditions deep inside alien worlds.
This past year, science was one part of our society that not only continued to function, but also to function spectacularly well. That’s because it’s based on principles and ideals that live at the heart of our collective national identity — and which American science held fast to even as others’ didn’t.
First, science is based on the possibility of collective truth. The Founding Fathers believed in the Enlightenment ideal that science offers a path to wise self-rule, a path that can shield us from superstition and mob delusion. They and the leaders who followed knew we could not succeed as a nation unless we had common ground on which weighty issues of the day could be discussed and debated. Science is one exceptional way to build that ground.
Second, science requires strong, enduring institutions supported by both leaders and the people. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln chartered the National Academy of Sciences to advise Congress and the president about key issues in science and technology. After World War II and science’s success in helping defeat the fascist powers, institutions like the National Science Foundation were created to guide our nation’s research effort.
We could not have developed Covid-19 vaccines today without the decades of investment in labs, students and research that preceded it. By providing the long-horizon funding for scientific endeavors across generations, the institutions of U.S. government demonstrated their capacity to anticipate and cultivate the common good. In this way, all the institutions surrounding American science have ensured the health and vibrancy of our economy and security.
Third, science must always look outward. The success of American science can only come from the success of science across the globe. The feat of the Covid-19 vaccines was a worldwide effort coming from German companies like Pfizer and British institutions like Oxford University.
American science is strong when it leads by collaboration. That has been the case for a century, and it’s why so many young students come here to pursue their scientific training. After their education, many of the world’s best and brightest choose to stay. They bring their genius for innovation to our culture and economy. Science always embraces these engines of hope and progress; it does not fear them and turn them away.
This past year, science was one part of our society that not only continued to function, but also to function spectacularly well.
Together, these principles ensured that even as it faced profound challenges, American science delivered. It delighted us. It showed us the world’s majesty. It saved lives. Most important, in its success, we can find a path to our own renewal as a nation.
American science shows us the way: We are strongest when we work together. We are most secure when we hold fast to the institutions we’ve built against falsehood. We triumph when we reject delusion with the wisest fires of our burning desire to know and act on the truth.