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Scientists as heroes: Let’s keep that image in the public eye

You truly have emerged as a personal hero for me,” Julia Roberts tells Dr. Anthony Fauci in an interview broadcast on YouTube. Calling the U.S. infectious disease expert “maybe the coolest man on the planet,” the Oscar-winning actress is clearly star-struck during their conversation, part of an initiative by an advocacy group to raise the profile of medics, scientists, and experts.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, scientists weren’t cool. They were invisible at best. A 2018 survey by Research!America, an alliance that advocates for science, found that 80% of people surveyed could not name a single living scientist.

But this may be scientists’ time.

Fauci has gained a huge following in the U.S. In England, chief medical officer Dr. Chris Whitty is commanding respect, even seeing an appreciation society spring up in his honor. In Greece, Dr. Sotiris Tsiodras, an infectious disease expert, has been described as the country’s “man of the moment” and named in a poll as the most popular person in the country. Germany’s Dr. Christian Drosten, long recognized in science circles as one of the world’s foremost experts on coronaviruses is now one of the most sought-after guests on the nation’s TV shows while his weekly podcast is the most popular in the country, with more than 1 million downloads. In Sweden, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has become so popular that some Swedes have had tattoos of his face inked onto their bodies.

Scientists and academics haven’t always been respected or admired. In fact, they have often been distrusted and had to battle for recognition. In 2016, during the campaign on whether Great Britain should stay in the European Union, British Cabinet Minister Michael Gove famously said that Britain has had enough of experts. Even in the current climate, they’ve often had to battle to make their voices heard: Fauci has had to tread a fine line between communicating facts about Covid-19 and contradicting disinformation from his president.

I’m delighted to see mainstream culture recognizing this. Witness the “Saturday Night Live” sketch satirizing Fauci’s predicament. In popular culture, scientists have for too long historically been portrayed as geeks or villains — just think how often the word “mad” comes before scientist — yet now they are seen as cool enough to be played by Brad Pitt on a popular U.S. television show.

The challenge will be to maintain this level of respect when Covid-19 has become part of the new normal.

Prizes can play an important role. While the public tends to think of the Nobel Prize, which unquestionably remains preeminent, it no longer stands alone. There’s an overflowing trophy cabinet of international prizes: the A.M. Turing Award in the U.S., the Queen Elizabeth Prize in the U.K.; the Abel Prize in Norway; the Asahi and the Kyoto prizes in Japan; and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences — a joint enterprise by tech superstars including Google cofounder Sergey Brin and Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg — to name just a few.

As the chair of Technology Academy Finland, which awards the Millennium Technology Prize, one of the world’s largest prizes for science-based innovations, my hope is that this newfound respect for scientists will mean wider mainstream reporting of the winners of science prizes beyond the Nobel winners. Even with their new-found appreciation, scientists are rarely celebrated as cultural figures, running well behind musicians, actors, and sports stars. Those responsible for discovering stem cells or new ways in which the body can absorb drugs are seldom given the public recognition they deserve.

Prizes can start much-needed conversations within countries about the state of science and its impact on society. When a scientist from a country wins a prize, it gives the whole of science — from the school laboratory upward — a powerful boost. It can inspire the next generation of young adults to consider science as a career, particularly women who remain underrepresented in the profession. Prizes also provide a way for countries to benchmark themselves against their competitors. If, for instance, a country goes decades without winning a Nobel Prize, it is a healthy source of concern and should prompt some digging into why that is happening.

We need scientific experts today more than ever. In the face of President Trump advocating injecting disinfectant to treat Covid-19, or claims that Bill Gates engineered the pandemic, scientists need the status they have attained to counter such misinformation.

Of course, science prizes are nowhere near as important as world-class, well-funded universities and research facilities in promoting science and innovation. But they do have an important role in focusing the attention of investors, corporations, educators, and politicians on the cutting edge of science — and they can keep scientists in the public eye.