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Year : 2021  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 115-116  

Science in the time of corona: That uneasy feeling

Department of Community Medicine, Dr. D. Y. Patil Medical College, Hospital and Research Centre, Pune, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission11-Jan-2021
Date of Decision12-Jan-2021
Date of Acceptance13-Jan-2021
Date of Web Publication28-Jan-2021

Correspondence Address:
Amitav Banerjee
Department of Community Medicine, Dr. D. Y. Patil Medical College, Hospital and Research Centre, Pune, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/mjdrdypu.mjdrdypu_17_21

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How to cite this article:
Banerjee A. Science in the time of corona: That uneasy feeling. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth 2021;14:115-6

How to cite this URL:
Banerjee A. Science in the time of corona: That uneasy feeling. Med J DY Patil Vidyapeeth [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 May 19];14:115-6. Available from: https://www.mjdrdypv.org/text.asp?2021/14/2/115/308218

An editorial in the BMJ raises concerns about the science, or lack of it, during the present pandemic.[1] It states, rather boldly, that science is being suppressed by politicians and governments ostensibly in the public interest. Complicating the issue further are conflicts of interest of academics, researchers and commercial groups. Academics and researchers in universities are perpetually under pressure to publish or perish. The pandemic offers an opportunity to publish and publish fast.

In this environment of academic anarchy precipitated by the pandemic, even top tier journals are publishing papers which during normal times would not find a place in an average journal. According to Retraction Watch, a watchdog on publication misconduct, COVID-19 related research with 72 retractions was highest on the list for retracted papers in 2020.[2]

A meta-analysis of published research on COVID-19 identified over 11,000 papers. Out of these, half of them were expert opinions, without original data, the lowest rung in evidence-based medicine.[3] The sample sizes for original studies (excluding simulation studies and large scale publicly available datasets), were also small, the median being 102. Most of these original studies, over 80% had intermediate to high risk of bias. While conceding the need for real-time research in times of pandemic, the authors cautioned that despite the emergency, we should exercise healthy scepticism while appraising work carried out in haste. There can be no compromise on solid evidence if we are to successfully contain the pandemic efficiently without causing collateral harm.

Fast track research and fast publications, cutting corners, have the potential for public harm. Retractions which take months to years, cannot undo such harm. Besides, retractions only indicated the tip of the iceberg. For every retraction, there can be many others, published in unholy haste, which despite flaws may go undetected. Like for every detected case of COVID-19, there are plenty of asymptomatic infections.

Scientists lost the plot early. The academic debate gave way to polarization with eminent scientists on both sides of the divide on issues of COVID-19 control. Many were silent fearing professional repercussions.

Politics and commercial interests filled the vacuum created by poor science. Research data were alleged to have been published selectively under political influence.[4] Such reports erode public trust in scientists. Political conflicts of interest contaminated science even in developed countries. Political appointees within the US Department of Health and Human Service demanded to review and revise scientific reports related to COVID-19 published by the Centre of Disease Control and Prevention.[5] In the UK, government advisers influenced the deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.[1]

In this crisis, we have had the worst of communism adopting the draconian measures like lockdowns taking the cue from China, and the worst of capitalism with market forces hijacking the agenda as the pandemic progressed. Opportunist politicians and academics piggy-backed on the way.

In a crisis, politicians, their advisers and career scientists are under a lot of pressure. They have to project the illusion of being in control. The present pandemic is rife with uncertainties precluding clear cut decisions. The tendency is to think in black and white. Patches of grey are overlooked. Nuances which go into planning strategy in one geographical location may be inappropriate if applied elsewhere.[6]

A scientific temperament calls for the ability to contemplate diverse opinions objectively, with detachment and equipoise. It also calls for moral courage to stand up for integrity. Anything short of this can lead to public health catastrophe.[1]

The present pandemic has exposed the fault lines in scientific institutions across nations. Instead of free communications of the uncertainties inherent in the science of pandemics, these institutions have resorted to opacity and obfuscation. One should learn from the lapses of the scientific community in this pandemic to meet future challenges. Not just science, scientific integrity will be needed to cope with present and future challenges. This coupled with transparency and good communication can shrug off that uneasy feeling.

  References Top

Abbasi K. COVID-19: Politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science. BMJ 2020;371:m4425.  Back to cited text no. 1
Retraction Watch, December 31, 2020. Available from: https://www.retractionwatch.com/2020/12/31/a-look-back-at-retraction-news-in-2020-and-ahead-to-2021/(20). [Last accessed on 2020 Jan 08].  Back to cited text no. 2
Raynaud M, Zhang H, Louis K, Goutaudier V, Wang J, Dubourg Q, et al. COVID-19-related medical research: A meta-research and critical appraisal. BMC Med Res Methodol 2021;21:1.  Back to cited text no. 3
Dutta SS. ICMR firewalled crucial data of serosurvey study conducted to assess extend of COVID-19 spread. The New Indian Express. 20 September 2020. Available from: https://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/2020/sep/20/icmr-firewalled-crucial-data-of-serosurvey-study-conducted-to-assessextent-of-covid-19-spread-2199272.html[21]. [Last accessed on 2020 Jan 11].  Back to cited text no. 4
Rasmussen SA, Ward JW, Goodman RA. Protecting the editorial independence of the CDC from politics. JAMA 2020;324:1729-30. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.19646.  Back to cited text no. 5
Banerjee A. Corona is Queen but other pieces on the chess board matter as much. The Edition 19 May 2020. Available from: https://www.intheedition.wordpress.com/2020/05/19/corona-is-queen-but-other-pieces-on-the-chess-board-matter-as-much/[21]. [Last accessed on 2020 Jan 11].  Back to cited text no. 6

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