A Moment of Truth for Science

by Jamie Vernon | Mar 18, 2020

coronavirus illustration


This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Content Provider: CDC/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS


Jamie Vernon You’ve surely been inundated by messages from your employer, your local government, your physician, and your financial advisor about how they have taken steps to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sigma Xi has also undertaken actions to protect its staff, leadership, and the Society from the wide-ranging effects of this viral outbreak. Despite the avalanche of distressing headlines and the troubling spread of misinformation, we, as members and staff of Sigma Xi, must recognize that this is a moment of truth for the Society as research moves to the forefront of the response to this crisis. 

Last week, in the midst of the news that a research conference was the origin of the viral outbreak in Boston, I could no longer justify putting our staff members at risk or contributing to the nationwide spread of the virus, therefore I issued an order to suspend all staff travel and to initiate an enhanced work-from-home policy. We began transitioning all in-person leadership and committee meetings to virtual gatherings. This week we are offering support to chapter leaders who wish to conduct their spring chapter events online, including virtual research symposia and chapter induction ceremonies. We do not expect the outbreak to affect the Annual Meeting and Student Research Conference in November. However, this will be a challenging time for Sigma Xi, because our university campus activities and member inductions that are run by chapters are critical to our ability to provide the resources and tools that serve our members year-round. 

Just as the entire world is adapting to the social distancing culture, Sigma Xi will adjust to the circumstances and continue to meet its mission of improving the human condition through research. We are proud to know that our members are on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. Sigma Xi members are tracking the spread of the virus, developing vaccines and therapies to treat and prevent future infections, and communicating about how and why it’s necessary to heed the advice from public health officials. But it is science writ-large that has taken the center stage and we consider this to be a crucial opportunity to inform the public about our community’s contributions to society and demonstrate the integrity with which we do our work. 

Currently, there are multiple scientific efforts underway to minimize the effects of this health crisis and prevent a repeat in the future. Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle delivered the first rounds of a potential coronavirus vaccine to several dozen optimistic volunteers earlier this week. An immunologist at Johns Hopkins University is exploring whether antibodies from the blood plasma or serum of people who have recovered from COVID-19 infection can boost the immunity of newly infected patients and those at risk of contracting the disease. At the University of Queensland Centre for Clinical Research, scientists have found that two different medications have completely wiped out traces of the disease in early patients. Each of these promising results will need to pass clinical trials, but it’s important that we tell the world about how research is the key to finding a solution.

You have surely marveled at Dr. Anthony Fauci’s ability to deliver sober, practical guidance on the progression of the pandemic. As the National Institutes of Health's director for infectious diseases, he has become the face of science for the moment and we should applaud his performance. But while Dr. Fauci speaks to the world on behalf of the scientific community, Sigma Xi members should take this opportunity to be messengers within our own communities. There are many people in our social networks who are starving for reliable information. Because you embody the principles of Sigma Xi, which include excellence and integrity, I challenge you to be a positive force for good in your community. 

Help your friends and family find accurate information about the symptoms of COVID-19 infections. [Update: See the Sigma Xi COVID-19 Preparedness Kit for resources you can share.] Explain how vaccines are made and why it takes 9-12 months to prove their safety and efficacy. Dispel myths about false cures or harmful therapies. But do it with kindness and compassion. We are the ambassadors of science and we can build immeasurable confidence and trust by serving our fellow citizens of the world. I’m confident that trust will be handsomely rewarded.

If you are already taking steps to provide accurate information about COVID-19, please share your examples with us so others can join in the effort.

Jamie Vernon signature

Jamie Vernon
Executive Director and CEO, Sigma Xi
Publisher, American Scientist

comments powered by Disqus

Blog Categories