Pandemic is serious but a bigger threat is looming

We have all seen how science has helped cushion the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on global health.

The development of vaccines in record time takes the top spot. We have to thank biotechnology, especially genomic sequencing, for the fast speed in developing vaccines.

Science has also helped innovation in diagnostics for Covid-19, improving the testing speed to isolate infected cases quickly.

Internet science and information technology have been the science behind the contact tracing applications. Without Internet science, the world would struggle much more in the pandemic.

The world economy would be much worse than it is. Education has benefited much from the Internet. It might have been a disaster for education if the Internet was not there to serve us.

It has made possible the delivery of lessons online. In fact, in higher education institutions, lessons could even be delivered to international students.

Through the ingenuity of digital science, there are algorithms available that can almost mimic the experience of a physical classroom.

Online conferences and webinars have become commonplace. They are cheaper to conduct and can reach out to a bigger audience: the world. Speakers can present their papers without leaving their homes.

Countries, which had the foresight to invest in broadband, fare better than others. Broadband technology has also proven to be a big help in online commerce.

We do not have to leave home to enjoy our favourite meals as they can be ordered via online platforms. Not to mention the convenience of hailing a ride to get to a destination. Science has made these possible.

The science may have been done decades ago, but thanks to investments in it, we are reaping the fruits of our labour now, that is, technologies that have sprung up from the fundamental science that was researched years ago.

That is why we need to have the right balance between basic and applied research in science.  Some say the pandemic is a pale shadow of the bigger threat that is looming ahead: climate change.

Scientists predict that the repercussions on the world would be worse once global temperatures exceed 2°C. People living in coastal cities and low-lying islands will become climate refugees.

Conflicts and economic hardships create refugees. Displaced people from climate disasters will add to that number, making the problem more complex. Science is again seen as the solution to address global warming, which fuels climate change.

The sciences of energy, waste management, materials and manufacturing hold some answers to resolve the climate issue. It is no surprise that countries are busy devoting resources to drive research.

We should do the same. Like the pandemic, where no one country can single-handedly end the problem, the same applies to climate change. These require global cooperation.

We must be reminded that science only provides the tools to combat the problems. To bring science to bear on the problems, we need the right policies to guide the implementation of the sciences.

We need policies at international and local levels. On climate change, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been meeting on an annual basis to get agreements from nation-states on the policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Everyone always cites the 2015 Paris Agreement, which managed to iron out much of the different stands by countries, as reference.

The United States, which pulled out of the agreement in 2016, has now rejoined it, which many welcome.

Let us hope the implementation of the many pledges by nations and big multinationals to cut emissions will materialise this time.

But what has become clear is that, while science matters a lot to the world, the right robust policies on science are critical if we are to benefit from it.

The writer is a Professor at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy,  UCSI University

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