Science Serves in 2020 and Beyond

December, 2020

Erica Goldman, Ph.D., NCSE Deputy Director
Michelle Wyman, NCSE Executive Director

  “...this global pandemic has paved the way to the inevitable realization that the development of a supportive environment towards promoting scientific culture and temperament is essential towards tackling such pandemics in the future. And towards meeting these ends, policymakers globally have to prioritize the promotion of a better scientific environment and practice...” [1]

The year 2020 is a moment like none other. History will remember this year for the devastating COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement—along with blazing wildfires, oppressive heat, and soaking storms, all hallmarks of a steadily changing climate. [2] As this year heaves to an end, two beacons shine bright: first, the unwavering human spirit that rises up and leans in when the going gets tough; and second, the unquestioned imperative of science in serving society.

soap bubble with lots of color


In a week that heralded the rollout of the first doses of vaccine to counter COVID-19, we are witnessing this unmistakable triumph of science. Only because of the steady churn of scientific research over decades, much of it out of the public eye and largely uncelebrated, was the scientific community ready to accelerate the pace of research and development that produced a scientifically proven, strikingly effective vaccine in record time. But even as we recognize these triumphs of science and the endurance of the human spirit, we acknowledge the grave inequities and inequalities that have finally gained much overdue voice in 2020. While the science of COVID and the science of climate change are objective truths, the impact of these truths discriminates disproportionally against underserved, vulnerable, and marginalized communities. 


Social conditions and race show clear inequities in access to health care and community support for those stricken with the virus. [3] And like COVID-19, extreme weather events have hit hardest those least prepared and least likely to recover. Acknowledging this reality of disproportionate impact, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its annual State of Climate Services Report [4] in October, noting an evolution from "what the weather will be" to "what the weather will do," underscoring the need to switch to impact-based forecasting that maps the consequences of these differential effects on people.


Science has demonstrated its durability this year. While misinformation and unproven claims have compromised the virus response, the scientific community has served as a steady, unified force, focused on the research findings and data, sharing knowledge across their community and conveying it to decision-makers desperate for rigorous, credible knowledge. Transparency has proven key to effectively communicating the rapidly evolving science and understanding of COVID-19 to the public. This year has demonstrated over and over how vital the role of science is in decision-making. The experiences of 2020 offer innumerable opportunities to improve the mechanisms and processes for spanning science and decision-making, and also further inspire innovation and evidence-informed leadership. 


Leading forward in the open policy window presented by the pandemic and the recent U.S. presidential election, NCSE recently published a proposal in collaboration with the Day One Project, aiming to seed concrete and actionable ideas for the incoming administration in the United States. This proposal suggests mechanisms to further strengthen the role of substantive input from the academic science community, such as NCSE’s core membership, to improve the access of science advice for executive branch decision-making. If pursued as proposed, this approach might also be modified and taken up in other places in the world. 


The science enterprise has risen to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, and demonstrated the importance of a thriving and diverse scientific ecosystem in responding to a global crisis—but much work remains to ensure that the science enterprise serves society in a just and equitable manner. The trials and successes of 2020 affirm and validate the mission of the National Council for Science and the Environment—to improve the scientific basis of environmental decision-making—and underscores the opportunity for expanding its community and reach by evolving internationally. 


As the year 2020 comes to an end, NCSE also turns a page in its 30-year history. Beginning in January 2021, NCSE will shift its name to the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE) and continue to span boundaries between science and decision-making to strengthen the impact of durable solutions to environmental challenges.