Not all heroes wear capes — why “science nerds” are the new super beings

I had a job interview today for a job I really, really want. In what was a first for me, as soon as the interview finished the interviewers sent me an email with instructions to write a piece of content and email it back to them within half an hour. It had to be science related. This is what I came up with, and it came easily because it’s something I truly believe. I hope that our society really does start to see the value in science and scientists, and realise that we’re all better off if we see this field as an investment, not a cost.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s this — our appreciation of scientists has been far lower than it should have been. When, in December 2019, a new strain of coronavirus appeared in China, the world felt its collective stomach turn cold. But there was one group who felt quite differently about what was to become the worst pandemic in a century. The science community weren’t surprised by this soon-to-be catastrophic turn of events — they were expecting it.

A superhero toy in a “superhero pose” — feet apart, arms ready for action — with bright eyes in front of a dim yellowish light.
Image source: https://p1.pxfuel.com/preview/648/800/988/superhero-super-hero-iron-man.jpg. Image is used under the creative commons license.

Many countries — including the USA and Australia — actually had pandemic preparedness plans in place for many years, under the guidance of epidemiologists and other scientific experts. This may seem surprising, because the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to take everyone by surprise. It seems like so long ago now, but in the early days of the pandemic, there were PPE shortages in hospitals and other care facilities and disposable face masks sold for as much as $5 each because of their scarcity. So why, with all this behind-the-scenes preparation, could our front-line workers not find fresh masks and face shields? Well, it’s because pandemic preparedness seemed, five, ten or fifteen years ago, as necessary as preparing for a mutant supervillain, and governments decided that it was an unnecessary expense on their balance sheets. In the 1990s, Victoria even closed its specialist infectious diseases hospital, a facility that would have proved invaluable during that state’s deadly Covid-19 outbreaks last year. All of this happened, not because science let us down, but because the decision makers decided not to listen to scientists.

Fast forward to 2021, and if there’s one silver lining from the unrelenting global tragedy that has been Covid-19, it’s that governments are finally listening to scientists. It’s not the people in capes, but the people in white coats who have led the fight against this mutant supervillain — a villain who turned out not to be a reptilian creature from another galaxy, but a microscopic particle that found a way to infect us all. Without the billions of dollars thrown at vaccine research in the last eighteen months, we’d all still be at the mercy of Covid-19 with no end or hope in sight.

One of the concerns we keep hearing about our suite of Covid-19 vaccines is that they were developed so quickly. It’s true, new medications usually take around a decade to develop, test and release to market. But if we look at the timeline of the development of most medicines, the majority of time is spent asking for research funding, and protecting the researchers’ intellectual property — neither of which were issues when governments the world over realised that they needed science to save them.

Hopefully, when this awful period of history is over and we look back on the stories of brilliant human resilience in the face of fear, uncertainty and an invisible enemy, there is one group — the scientists— who are held in the highest regard of all, and finally elevated in our collective consciousnesses to true superhero status.