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National Academies Launch New COVID-19 Strategic Science Initiative

Effort Will Inform Pandemic Response and Help Society Chart a Course for Recovery


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the United States and around the world, society must prepare for an uncertain future with many unknowns about what course the pandemic will take, how governments will respond, and when vaccines will become widely available. To help decision-makers navigate through this ongoing crisis and take actions toward a strong and sustained recovery, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have launched a new strategic science initiative to provide rapid, scenario-based analyses aimed at protecting critical societal functions, avoiding worst outcomes, and building upon potential opportunities.

The Response and Resilient Recovery Strategic Science Initiative was spearheaded by National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt, who proposed a framework for delivering science in a crisis based on her experience during the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. (McNutt was then the head of the U.S. Geological Survey.)

“We’re worrying entirely about stopping the transmission and flattening the curve, but we don’t look at the long term. The purpose of this initiative is to take a careful look at [the pandemic’s] cascading impacts on essential aspects of modern society in the months and years ahead.”

When crises occur — whether they are regionally contained like the Deepwater Horizon disaster or an all-encompassing health emergency like the pandemic — “there are these cascading impacts on the economy, personal income, supply chains, and other aspects of modern society that cannot be ignored,” said McNutt. As society responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “we’re worrying entirely about stopping the transmission and flattening the curve, but we don’t look at the long term. The purpose of this initiative is to take a careful look at these cascading impacts on essential aspects of modern society in the months and years ahead.”

To guide the initiative, the National Academies appointed an executive council of distinguished leaders with experience in crisis management from government, industry, civil society, and academia, including committee chair Martín Sepúlveda, CEO and principal of CLARALUZ LLC, and senior executive consultant for IBM Corp.; Adm. Thad Allen, former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard; John Lumpkin, president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation; and Janet Napolitano, former U.S. secretary of homeland security, former governor of Arizona, and president emeritus of the University of California system. The council has identified several critical focus areas for scenario-based strategic planning, such as how the pandemic could impact ecosystem health and climate change, the educational and research capabilities of U.S. research universities — important engines of innovation and economic growth — and the learning trajectories of low-income and special-needs K-12 students.

For each of these areas, strategy groups composed of multidisciplinary teams of experts will be mobilized to provide likely scenarios, along with estimates of uncertainties, and identify potential interventions that could mitigate the most severe possible outcomes and leverage opportunities.

For the initiative’s pilot case, a strategy group will examine how the pandemic could affect rental property evictions for low- and middle-income households and disadvantaged groups and identify potential chains of consequences — such as increased spread of COVID-19 due to homelessness or displacement, inability to maintain employment, or added strains on already taxed community resources. Each strategy group’s work and advice will be presented in short, peer-reviewed documents designed to be easily accessible to stakeholders across the public and private sectors, and at the national, state, and local levels.

“We want to become far more proactive about looking for opportunities to provide value to the nation on emerging problems,” said McNutt, who notes that this type of scenario planning could also be applied to a broad range of issues beyond COVID-19. “This is a tool where we can identify these emerging issues and come up with a series of steps to get them in front of stakeholders before these scenarios have actually played out with negative consequences.”The initiative is one of many projects and activities undertaken by the National Academies in recent months to help the nation respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, the Academies recently issued a fast-track study on how to equitably allocate vaccines as they become available, and its Societal Experts Action Network (SEAN), which taps expertise across a range of social, behavioral, and economic sciences, provided guidance on promising strategies that decision-makers can use to encourage the adoption of protective behaviors such as wearing masks and cooperation with contact-tracing efforts. And since the early days of the pandemic, the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats has been providing rapid expert consultations to inform the federal government on urgent questions such as diagnostic testing, crisis standards of care, and virus seasonality.

“This new strategic science initiative provides us with a nimble approach to assess the course of the pandemic and its impact on society, as well as to deliver advice to decision-makers who are best positioned to act upon it,” said Gregory Symmes, chief program officer at the National Academies. “As always, we are grateful to the experts and organizations supporting us in this endeavor, and whose contributions make this important work possible.”



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