J. MICHAEL TAYLOR, MSPH, CIH, FAIHA, is chief safety, health, and environmental officer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a member of the Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC).
DAVID ROSKELLEY, MSPH, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is partner at R & R Environmental Inc. and a member of the JIHEEC.
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Scientific Collaboration and Civility
During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have been more willing than ever to quickly share new ideas and information. Open sharing of data, collaboration, and communication has helped speed the development of new diagnostic tools, vaccines, therapies, and science-based guidelines to help control and mitigate SARS-CoV-2.
The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, the first to be activated by messenger RNA (mRNA), were made possible by the collaboration of scientists and the use of CRISPR technology. CRISPR, which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” is a virus-fighting trait discovered in certain bacteria that use CRISPR-derived RNA to chop up and destroy the DNA of a foreign invader. Transferring these components into more complex organisms allows for gene editing. CRISPR technology is being used to develop COVID-19 tests that identify SARS-CoV-2 more quickly and efficiently than conventional tests.
Another example of scientific collaboration during the pandemic is the Harvard Medical School’s formation of the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness (MassCPR), which engaged hundreds of scientists across 20 Boston-area universities, medical schools, research institutes, and teaching hospitals in collaboration with researchers in China. The purpose of MassCPR is to address the immediate implications of the current pandemic and the long-term need to prepare for the next one. The MassCPR scientists conceptualized, designed, and developed the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Collaboration is also a hallmark of AIHA’s response to the pandemic. Hundreds of generous volunteers helped develop a library of science-based, peer-reviewed guidelines on various technical topics related to the control and mitigation of SARS-CoV-2. These guidelines include the application of engineering controls such as ventilation, enhanced filtration, and physical barriers; the use of germicidal ultraviolet radiation; enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices; and many more topics relevant to issues that the public and the OEHS community face while mitigating the spread of COVID-19. These guidelines are available from the AIHA COVID-19 Resource Center. In addition, updated versions of workplace-specific guidelines were added to the Back to Work Safely website in July. Readers are encouraged to become familiar with these AIHA resources, encourage their use, and learn more about volunteering with AIHA.
DISAGREEMENT VS. DISTRUST Over the course of the pandemic, there have been progressive changes in recommended controls and a constant flow of new and sometimes conflicting scientific data. These changes have led at times to disagreements about the meaning of scientific information. Disagreements among scientists are neither new nor unexpected; scientists follow the evidence wherever it goes, and sometimes the evidence allows for more than one interpretation. As data about the current pandemic become more complete, they will help scientists more effectively prepare for future pandemics.
More troublesome than the expected scientific disagreements have been the occasions of misinformation (information presented as true but later shown to be false) and disinformation (false information intended to mislead). A flood of pandemic misinformation and disinformation, particularly on social media, has the potential to crowd out accurate public health information. One consequence of this “infodemic” is that politicians and public authorities can’t agree on the best course of action to protect people from COVID-19. The media add to the confusion as reporters and editors, perhaps encumbered by political biases, scramble to cover complex scientific issues. These influences have created uncertainty and distrust, which lead to fear, anxiety, and the dismissal of established public health measures.
THE FOUNDATION Like all scientists, OEHS professionals are taught to ask questions. This is a fundamental component of the scientific method. The need to interact with peers, share opinions, and collaborate plays a key role in any scientific or educational pursuit we undertake.
A flood of pandemic misinformation and disinformation, particularly on social media, has the potential to crowd out accurate public health information.
For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most challenging events of our lives. Partly for this reason, discussions about the pandemic with our peers—for example, on Catalyst, AIHA’s online member forum—can become intense, and have at times turned bitter. But if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that the need for civility is more important now than it has ever been. It is the foundation on which successful, collaborative science is built.
The concept of civility is also woven into the AIHA Code of Conduct. The Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC) encourages readers to study the code and ponder its application in our lives. The code encompasses the following qualities:
Respect. When working together, members or volunteers should always be mindful of how their actions, speech, writing, and other contributions affect colleagues, peers, and the association. We may not always agree, but disagreement is no excuse for poor behavior or poor manners.
Honesty. Members or volunteers should be honest and transparent with each other (and themselves) regarding the amount of time they can realistically commit to volunteer projects.
Confidentiality. If members or volunteers are made privy to information that is considered confidential, it should remain confidential.
Responsibility. On every project, people come and go. AIHA volunteer work is no different. If a member or volunteer leaves or disengages from any position within a committee or volunteer group, in whole or in part, we ask that the individual does so in a way that minimizes disruption.
Professionalism. Acting in a professional manner is expected, including behaviors that are courteous and considerate, and communications that are honest, fact based, and politically neutral. Members and volunteers are expected to maintain high standards, act with integrity, and be professional in their dealings with other members, volunteers, and staff.
THE GOLDEN RULE One wonder of the age we live in is that information can be shared at the speed of light, with almost anyone on the planet, at any time. In the sidebar, the JIHEEC offers guidelines to encourage civility within our community.
Most religions and cultures embrace the golden rule, which teaches us to treat others as we would like to be treated. It also helps make scientific collaboration possible. The JIHEEC calls upon all members to treat others with respect and understanding despite our differing opinions and backgrounds.
Suggestions for Encouraging Civility
•Communication should be truthful, honest, accurate, and constructive. Do not exaggerate or embellish one’s accomplishments, research, or background.
•Messages and postings should avoid contention and be positive rather than argumentative, reproachful, or belittling. Such negativity disappoints readers and provokes those with different points of view.
•Respect intellectual property. Do not use someone else’s material, research, or photos without permission or credit.
•The internet never forgets. Remember that anything communicated through social media is permanent.
•Resist the urge to tweet, text, post to social media, or email when you’re in the heat of the moment.
LiveScience: “What is CRISPR?” (April 2018).