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3 ways science will never be the same after COVID-19

July 7, 2020, 9:15 PM UTC

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In Ernest Hemingway’s lauded novel The Sun Also Rises, one character famously tells another how he went bankrupt: “Gradually, and then suddenly.”

That same wry remark could be used to describe how big changes happen in science. At least that’s the view of Jennifer Doudna, a professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology at the University of California at Berkeley, who spoke Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health virtual conference.

Doudna is best known for codiscovering a powerful genetic engineering technology called Crispr-Cas9. The technology enables scientists effectively to “cut and paste” DNA with precision.

This summer, a group of researchers used the technology to treat inherited blood disorders in humans, such as sickle cell anemia, resulting in what one team member described, albeit preliminarily, as a “functional cure.” As with much else these days, that hopeful bit of medical news has been overshadowed by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the global challenge, good can come out of the crisis, Doudna told the audience of executives who tuned in to the event via videoconference. Indeed, Doudna believes the coronavirus has pushed society toward an inflection point similar to the one Hemingway described in his classic—except this is one that begets, miraculously enough, prosperity rather than insolvency.

Doudna’s observation derives not from the fiction of Papa, but from another old book, one that she picked up in her early twenties while in graduate school: Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, Kuhn uses the concept of a “paradigm shift” to describe how revolutions take place—often gradually, and then suddenly—in science.

“Sometimes there’s a long period of time without a lot of change, and then things accumulate and suddenly there’s literally a revolution that changes everybody’s thinking, that alters the way we understand our world,” Doudna said. “I think we’re in that moment right now.”

Specifically, Doudna believes science is changing in three ways. Her list echoed points she made in a recent op-ed for The Economist.

1. More respect

The first change is an increased respect for science. People are gaining a greater appreciation for the discipline—a trend that could lead to new talent entering the field, greater funding for basic research, and more impactful discoveries.

“Why do we have science? Why do we have scientists?” Doudna asked rhetorically. “I think the coronavirus shows us in really close-up detail why it’s critical to understand biology.”

2. More communication

The second trend is better communication. Scientists traditionally reserve their findings for the prestigious pages of paywalled academic journals. But lately, Doudna has noticed more scientists picking up the pace and posting earlier versions of their draft articles, or preprints, online.

As a result of the race to understand the coronavirus and develop potential vaccines, “there’s a desperate need for science to be communicated quickly,” Doudna said. By posting results online early, even before they can be properly peer reviewed, “that allows information to quickly get out into the public sphere” where people can learn from, test, and build on it.

3. More collaboration

The third marked difference is boosted collaboration. Doudna described the combined efforts of corporations, scientists, and public health officials coming together to combat the coronavirus as “extraordinary.”

In her own case, rule changes expedited by state and federal governments allowed her own lab to get approval to convert into a COVID-19 testing facility earlier this year. The lab, housed in Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, now performs thousands of tests per day.

Partnerships with corporations, such as Salesforce, information analysis firm Third Wave, and lab equipment giant Thermo Fisher, helped get the program up and running in a matter of weeks.

Taken together, these rapid, major changes in the practice of science represent a Kuhnian paradigm shift, in Doudna’s view. “Those are all changes that are likely to stick around because they really are, fundamentally, allowing us to do science in a different way,” she said.

You can bet your money on it.