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Viewpoint: We must teach our youth to trust in science

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In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy urged America and the world, “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science … let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.” Kennedy’s words still resonate today, as we have witnessed the lightning-fast development of safe and effective vaccines. What the world has not seen is the massive, painstaking process undertaken to make them possible. It has truly been like the mission to land on the moon.

Yemisi Oluwatosin | PHOTO COURTESY YEMISI OLUWATOSIN

In my native country of Nigeria, people watched in wonder as Americans reached the moon, bringing hope for new possibilities that were once out of reach. The situation we find ourselves in today is similar, as the Nigerian people hold on to the hope that the miracle vaccines researched and developed in the United States will soon be available to the more than 99% of Nigerians currently not vaccinated against COVID-19. Yet here in the United States, where the vaccine is freely available to all, nearly 80 million people, many of whom are healthy enough to get vaccinated, have decided not to exercise this option. In our state of Delaware, where I am currently involved in the development of groundbreaking therapeutics for chronic kidney disease (which may increase the risk of being seriously ill with COVID-19 due to weakening of the immune system), biomedical research is prominent. Yet right now only half of our state’s population is fully vaccinated. This is largely due (in Delaware and nationwide) to an unhealthy and misinformed distrust of science that threatens individual lives and public health.

How has this happened? Part of the reason is that we are not teaching our children enough about science, how science works, and why it can and should be trusted.

Growing up with my 12 siblings on my parents’ farm in rural Nigeria, I was fascinated by science as a child — even though my parents had never attended school. The locally grown cacao tree, and the chemistry involved in transforming its harvest into global commodities like cocoa and chocolate was proof to me that science was critical to life. After all, without the fermentation process, how would my parents be able to put food on the table for our family?

Here in the United States of America, and I’m sure elsewhere in the world, children (and adults) have been bombarded with so much misinformation about science that the distrust we are now seeing is understandable. But that does not mean it should be acceptable. We can and must do better in educating future generations about the facts and history of science.

This education should include mistakes from the past when science was used irresponsibly and unethically. Unfortunately, there is no erasing history. Today’s biomedical research adheres to the highest ethical standards developed to ensure that people are treated equally regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political affiliation.

Today’s research is about following the science, where safety remains first and foremost. The COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States today went through rigorous testing. The same holds true for the COVID-19 vaccines available to us in the United States now. Countless scientists and regulatory authorities scrutinized the results of various tests and clinical trials that involved hundreds of thousands of patients, before the COVID-19 vaccines were made available to us. The swiftness with which they were developed and approved shows only that the collaborative effort to find a vaccine to save lives was focused, determined, and tireless — not that it was rushed or careless.

The truth about science, especially today’s biomedical research, should be shared with our children at a very early age. The old saying rings true — a lie can spread halfway around the globe while the truth is just putting on its boots. That is why we must be proactive in teaching the truth about science, and the truth is that science works. It is carried out by brilliant, caring scientists who are committed to rigor, fidelity to facts, and adherence to the highest ethical standards.

I have sought to instill the understanding and appreciation of science in Delaware’s youth, including my own daughter and son. Like most children, they valued their independence and tried to distance their future career path from their mother’s career as a scientist. Now, they both love science. My daughter is studying cognitive science to satisfy her curiosity about learning and behavioral neurochemistry, while my son is studying biomolecular engineering. I am very proud of them!

Unfortunately, COVID-19 may not be the last global pandemic our children see in their lifetimes. Regardless, we need to be prepared to accept the help that science can offer and minimize the effects of another contagious and deadly disease. We can prepare for that day right now by teaching our children something very simple and true — that science works.

Yemisi Oluwatosin is senior medical director for renal studies at AstraZeneca in Wilmington.

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