The unexpected challenge of delivering a scientific marvel to an on-demand society

22 Mar 2021

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As a society, we’ve gotten used to taking science and tech for granted. And when it comes to Covid-19 vaccines, the demand for an everyday miracle is obscuring the complicated reality, writes Elaine Burke.

I’m going to assume you’ve seen an ad for broadband. They’re all pretty much the same. A router is delivered to a house and then – bam! – that humble family home is now hurtling through space. A 3D dinosaur is roaring at the children in their bedroom. The heads of household start printing money from an online business started in a hot press. Rich media streams out of every pore of the building while a holographic vision of a grandmother enters the kitchen with tips on how to make the dinner. Or, you know, something to that effect.

It’s all so frictionless. So instantaneous. So miraculous. So much bunk.

But that’s marketing for you. You have to accentuate the positive. The sales pitch has to live up to the hype that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

And broadband is magical. What we can do today in terms of connectivity is nothing short of amazing. But we’ve become so lost in the marketing illusion that we forget the real miracle is the strings holding it up. Yet we don’t want to see those strings or even acknowledge their existence if we can avoid it. And we certainly don’t want to have to deal with them becoming tangled.

As soon as the tech fails – or even stumbles – we slip out of the reverie of the magic show and sometimes respond rather like babies denied a favourite toy. Comedian Chris Addison skewered the scenario on Mock the Week, noting how quickly we can go from astonishment at a miracle to demanding it as a fundamental entitlement.

You can see this entitlement in recent discourse around the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out. It’s astounding how quickly we went from collective awe at having produced vaccines so quickly to demanding immediate access and administration to billions with absolutely no delay.

This time last year, the very idea of having any vaccine ready by now was much more of a wish than a likelihood. Yet here we are with a number of vaccines on the table, but we’re complaining that they’re not getting served fast enough.

Let’s not forget, also, that hope for a vaccine to be produced in record time was also tempered with a dose of healthy scepticism. There were many factors warranting caution: the rapidity of development, the scale of the roll-out and the fact that many of these vaccines take a novel approach to vaccination using mRNA.

Yet, suddenly, the concern around anti-vaccination movements growing out of this well-grounded caution has been flipped on its head. Criticism of Covid-19 vaccines took a hairpin bend from ‘not cautious enough’ to ‘too cautious’ when the AstraZeneca vaccine roll-out was momentarily paused due to concerns raised around blood clotting. (Concerns that were rather rapidly assuaged, with no increased risk of blood clots determined.)

Public health campaigns have been so concerned with the challenge of introducing a Covid-19 vaccine to a vaccine-sceptic world that no one accounted for the challenge of delivering it to an on-demand world.

There are, of course, valid concerns that the AstraZeneca delay could inflame anti-vax sentiment, but not if communicated correctly.

It’s easy to see that there’s nothing to see here. Of course a novel vaccine manufactured at pace to be administered to billions needs a high level of scrutiny. The fact that this is all that came of it is testament to the science and safety behind vaccines.

Because, in real-life, science and technology may stutter and stumble and need a tweak or a fix. We need to stop living in a fantasy of a frictionless, magical world and accept that the reality of solving complex problems comes with many entanglements.

We have witnessed a miracle with the vaccines produced for Covid-19. But science is still behind it, and that means continued testing and research. We mustn’t sell the idea of a vaccine as a package delivered to your doorstep ready to instantaneously improve your life. Science communication is not a marketing tool. It should educate and inform, not gloss over the sticky details for a positive presentation.

The recent barometer survey from Science Foundation Ireland found that the Irish public has one of the highest levels of trust in science when compared with other small, advanced economies. The majority of respondents (85pc) also agreed that scientists have a professional responsibility to talk about research findings with the public.

One respondent wrote: “Scientists often let the public down by not properly explaining the findings and often relaying only the positive.”

There is evidence of a shift in public opinion about science towards more positive attitudes and higher levels of interest. But in accentuating the positives, we must not obfuscate the negatives that are just as much a part of scientific discovery and technological advancement.

People want to be informed. So let’s stop with the bunk and give them the science.

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.