I think even the most cynical among us hold some hope that 2021 will be an improvement on 2020. Last year set a low bar, and this year wouldn’t have to do much to exceed expectations.
The gathering momentum behind mass vaccination programmes is already a highlight of 2021. From the earliest days of the first lockdowns, governments and scientists indicated that vaccination was the best, the only, path out of the pandemic. Vaccine developers exceeded even the most optimistic estimates for when their help would arrive, to great fanfare. Alas, the threats and shortfalls surrounding vaccine supply contracts have soured the mood. Nevertheless, our return to the ‘old normal’ is a growing possibility, though aspects of the ‘new normal’ will likely endure.
Throughout the pandemic we have placed our hopes for the future in the hands of scientists while healthcare workers, educators and numerous other essential services dealt with our present-day despair. We owe all of them a debt. And if the decade to come turns out to be the roaring 2020s that some economists are predicting, we should not forget those who got us there.
For now, however, we continue to suffer turbulence and uncertainty, not least because of two major transitions: the UK’s long-heralded exit from the EU and the change of administration in the US. Both bring with them no small amount of instability and testing of bonds. And, having watched Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, a fair amount of energy too.
I’d expect many in the scientific community to welcome President Biden’s intentions to raise the status of science and scientists. As President-elect he remarked on Twitter that ‘science will be at the forefront of [his] administration’ and those words have been quickly followed by actions. The director of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been made a cabinet-level position for the first time, the US has re-joined the Paris climate accord and infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, no longer feels like the ‘skunk at the picnic’ as he told the New York Times. Biden has energised the federal pandemic response, with plans to vaccinate 100 million people in 100 days. This sounds unashamedly ambitious but, with a population of over 300 million needing two doses of the currently available vaccines, it could be a few years before everyone has the requisite shots in their arms if capacity doesn’t increase.
So, Biden seems to have made a good start, yet time will tell. I think we all appreciate that our nations’ leaders cannot rely on science alone – and that science does not exist outside of society or politics – but science should not be sidelined or opposed when it’s politically inconvenient.
Meanwhile, in the UK, we are starting to understand that the real impact of Brexit is much more than just a longer wait for EU-supplied goods. The loss of access to the European Chemicals Agency’s database and the need for a UK version of Reach legislation were concerns the chemical industry raised long before 1 January 2020. And while the academic community was no doubt relieved to keep access to major EU research funding schemes – Horizon Europe, European Research Council fellowships, Euratom – others were lost (notably Erasmus+) and anxiety remains over the ease with which EU researchers can work in the UK, even with the newly introduced global talent visa.
But, the thing about transitions is that they are… transitory. Even if they aren’t as fleeting as we’d like in these geo-political contexts, they nevertheless run their course. It’s small comfort, I know, particularly with so much at stake and with all the effort and heartbreak it’s taken to get here. And yet, I think even the most cynical among us hold some hope.