Editorial | Apr 23, 2020

      Collaboration at a distance

      How scientists are working together for a common cause

      By Dr. Moira Gilchrist, VP Strategic & Scientific Communications

      Over the last few weeks, I have often been asked what PMI is doing to support the community, both locally and globally, during these extraordinary times. The question has come from colleagues as well as members of the public. And it’s a fair question, given that there’s an expectation for companies to step in and do whatever they can. For me though, the point of helping the community is to help the community. And just because you don’t see or hear about it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. 

      What I will say is that I’m proud to be working for a company that has clearly shown support for its employees during these difficult times. I’m proud of my colleagues who volunteer their time to the community, for example, by making hand sanitizers for donation. And I don’t doubt that my colleagues are some of those people sewing facemasks or 3D printing face shields for their local hospitals. Everyone is doing something, even if doing something quite literally means doing nothing other than staying at home and following social distancing guidelines to help protect our communities.

      Many academic publishers have rapidly created special issues on COVID-19 research that are free to the public, or they’ve made any research published in their journals on the virus freely available, special issue or not. And have you noticed that we’re seeing research published in leading journals within weeks of the data becoming available? Publishing research generally takes months or years depending on the field and availability of peer reviewers. Journal editors and reviewers have dramatically streamlined the publishing and peer-review processes to get these critical papers out in record time.

      Scientist working in an office

      Even prior to the point of publishing, researchers are collaborating and communicating their results. The preprint online publishing systems medRxiv and bioRxiv have created a combined list of all COVID-19 (the disease) and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) preprints in both archives. Scientists are also participating in new pandemic-related webinars like those hosted by the American Chemical Society, the British Society for Immunology, and the Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity. Researchers are also hosting informal seminars among their peers, focusing on all various aspects of pandemic and virus research.

      Scientific collaboration is taking on an inspirational new meaning during this pandemic, where the term “armchair scientist” is taking on a more literal definition. Crowdsourcing coronavirus research expands the concept of “scientific community” to include anyone with a computer who wants to help. A protein folding-based videogame called Foldit, originally released in 2008, has been updated so that players can apply their creativity and free time to developing new theoretical protein-based drugs that could make it into the laboratory for testing. People who prefer a more passive role are installing Folding@Home, which assigns the user’s computer to perform calculations that contribute to several bigger projects focused on protein folding related to COVID-19 research.

      Global and local hackathons have popped up across the globe as well. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is now operating in “safe mode” with its particle accelerators shut down and most of its physicists telecommuting. What better way is there for the organization’s scientists and programmers to put their nervous energy to work than to host a global hackathon to provide solutions needed for medical applications, computing and data analysis, and other ways to help society?

      One more great example to see is the collaboration between Apple and Google announced earlier this month. Typically rivals, these two companies are now working together to create a solution to help governments and health agencies track the spread of the virus.  It’s encouraging to see two leaders in an industry, competitors, work together toward a common cause and global health. I would love to see more of this in any industry, not least of all tobacco. 

      Amazingly, and happily, I’m seeing more discussions based on scientific evidence on social media. Yes, there are some false statements out there and some decisions are being made without all the relevant information at hand. But I also get the sense that people want the facts, they want them in real time, and they want to discuss them openly. I see this renewed interest in evidence-based decision making as a win for public health. Especially decisions based on evidence provided by highly trained experts in virology, epidemiology, behavioral science and other fields relevant to the situation. And I hope that people retain this hunger for scientific evidence when – not if, but when – the world returns to some sort of normal.