Of all the emotions, none motivates like fear. It is not reason or civic virtue that is keeping people indoors. It is, rather, fear — fear of dying in a hospital without a ventilator or of spreading disease to a loved one.
Fear is also often behind big shifts in society and public policy. In fact, America’s future prosperity could well depend on its ability to use the coronavirus pandemic and the fear it engenders for positive results.
The United States has a track record at doing just that. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, America was a fearful place because of a string of technological advances by the Soviet Union, most notably the 1957 launch of the first satellite, Sputnik.
Find the next internet, GPS
The U.S. government responded with a massive investment in science, engineering and math. It created agencies such as NASA and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It directed billions of dollars to universities through the National Defense Education Act. And it put astronauts on the moon at dizzying speed.
Equally important, society at large got behind the science push:
►The original seven astronauts rocketed into the upper stratosphere of celebrity long before they ever made it into space.
►Schools placed a huge emphasis on science.
►Hollywood turned out a steady stream of science fiction films.
The space race ended up helping to spawn the internet and GPS. And all the money flowing into engineering projects created a demand for computing power that would kick-start an ongoing tech revolution.
This history comes to mind now because the COVID-19 pandemic is a kind of Sputnik moment, a time when America has an opportunity to reverse the anti-science movement that has spread pandemic-like in recent decades.
The first phase of this moment is already under way, with a big rush to pump money into public health and medical research.
Plaintive cries of scientists
A second phase, involving greater cultural acceptance of science, is showing some early signs of getting under way. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become something of a cult hero even as some try to cut him down. Americans have become much more reverential toward medical workers.
And we cannot help but believe that a nation desperate for a coronavirus vaccine will decide that it has had enough of the petty and troublesome anti-vaccine movement.
Ultimately, we would like to think that a third phase would come about as well, one where reverence for the life sciences spreads to other sciences.
This is far from a certainty. Resistance to climate science is deeply entrenched, and a good bit of society views anyone with extensive educational credentials as “elitist.”
Now the country is living through the depths of a pandemic that scientists long warned about. The U.S. failure to prepare adequately is having deadly consequences. Do Americans really want to find out what will happen if the plaintive cries of climate scientists are similarly ignored?
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