Science Communication, Research Data, and COVID-19: A Fireside Chat with Gagandeep Kang
From the perspective of science, scientific research, and science policy, the COVID-19 pandemic may best be described by Charles Dickens’s famous words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the opening line of his book “A Tale of Two Cities.” The world agonized as COVID-19 ravaged our society killing millions of people, infecting many more, and causing economic devastation. However, it set the course of science to an extraordinary degree. The speed of scientific progress and collaboration kept pace with the virus.
The upside was that society belatedly realized the criticality of science and science communication during the crisis. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the US President, became a household name in the US and worldwide.
—The speed of scientific progress and collaboration kept pace with the virus.—
The downside of the massive interest in health matters is that everyone considered themselves an epidemiologist and wanted to contribute their expertise. There was/is a growing conversation in social media, and these conversations include a significant quantity of mis- and disinformation, causing confusion and conflating with health policies. Consequently, it helped create the phenomenon which the World Health Organization (WHO) called the COVID-19 Infodemic. On the other hand, UNESCO calls this phenomenon Disinfodemic, as it is a case of disinformation phenomenon of our pandemic times. The WHO introduced a new term into our vocabulary—infodemiology—and pursued the “Let us flatten the Infodemic Curve” campaign aligned with efforts to identify misinformation and disinformation. Unfortunately, posts from the WHO and the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) have cumulatively only achieved several hundred thousand engagements, considerably eclipsed by hoax and conspiracy theory sites, which have amassed over 52 million (Mian and Khan 2020).
Every country had its panel of scientists who became the face and voice of science in mass media to shine a light on the unfolding pandemic and dispel some myths and misinformation campaigns. Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a celebrated microbiologist, virologist, and epidemiologist, was one of the credible voices in India. She is a professor at the Department of Gastrointestinal Sciences, Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore, India. Her accomplishments include being the first Indian woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the first Indian woman to be elected to the Fellowship of the American Academy of Microbiology, and the only physician-scientist to receive the Infosys Prize in Life Sciences. In addition, she is one of the credible scientific voices and faces that spread the evidence-based information on COVID-19 to the public through various media, including co-authoring a book, Till We Win: India’s Fight Against the COVID-19 Pandemic, published by Penguin Books in 2020.
Listen to Dr. Gagandeep Kang and her story in this episode of InfoFire, the fireside chat series from Information Matters. Dr. Kang takes us through her life’s journey, how her parents instilled the mandate to work, her passion for biology, and her student life at CMC Vellore, which shaped her thoughts and career. She commends the CMC as a phenomenal place to study—a beautiful green campus, friendly people, and small classes. She recalled how being away from home for the first time; she had to make new friends and learn to do many new things standing her in good stead in her career. She also mentions how participation in extracurricular activities helped her become capable.
Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna was inspired by James Watson’s 1968 book on the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix; Microbe Hunters, the classic book on the major discoveries of the microscopic world by Paul de Kruif (1926), inspired Dr. Kang to pursue a career in microbiology, a choice of career that she has never regretted. As a researcher (with an h-index of 76 as per Google Scholar), Gagandeep’s research publication record and impact are outstanding. However, she felt compelled to leverage the media attention she had gotten being the “first Indian woman” to enter the hallowed FRS in 2019 to draw attention to and communicate credible science to society through mass media. She realized from the early days of the pandemic that there was a great deal of uncertainty; while many people were saying a lot of different things, and many of those things were not based on fact but conjecture and beliefs, she felt compelled to devote time to communicate science to media and the general public.
Dr Kang thought it was essential to get some facts out there so that people understand that the pandemic is not a completely de novo situation where we know nothing. There is much science to build on. It requires a synthesis of information and an analytic approach to think about our opportunities and develop mechanisms of control, tools, including diagnostics, drugs, vaccines, and how they should be used in the context of COVID-19, including encouraging appropriate behaviors. The book Till We Win and every communication was in that direction. The idea is to provide information for people to use it. So the solution to the Infodemic challenge is credible scientists getting into the role of science communicators and the public being sensitized to and trained in finding trusted sources and verified and validated information. The public should realize that just because one can Google, one does not have the expertise. Just because it is on Wikipedia, it does not mean that it is a fact.
Responding to a question on the issue of credible scientists such as professor Michael Levitt (amongst others) with stellar credentials—an endowed Stanford professorship and a 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—dangerously misleading on COVID-19, Gagandeep had this to say: There is some starting point based on data, and then on top of that, they layer their interpretation. Their interpretation in the early stages may be based on how they think about the problem, but then the appropriate approach is to see whether their interpretation is ultimately borne out by fact or not. Regarding well-established journals publishing and then retracting, as happened with the Lancet article on Hydroxychloroquine treatment. Dr. Kang believes that scientists are responsible for being cautious, discerning, and somewhat slow in publishing because, ultimately, research is defined as a contribution to systematic knowledge. However, we must also admit that peer review is also flawed.
Gagandeep is cautiously optimistic about research data sharing, as ultimately, it advances science. However, scientists must be cautious because they would have to guard their datasets until the expected outcomes are achieved. After all, it affects their careers and their ability to get future grants. The critical issue is the time factor. How long a moratorium on data sharing or samples for that matter—three months, six months, two years, could be considered. She opines that there is no rationale for data sharing restrictions beyond that.
Responding to the emergence of data modeling of infectious diseases and predictions during the COVID-19, Dr. Kang believes that data modeling skill alone, without the right data and correct understanding of the data, means nothing. We are bound to get false interpretations. Some modeling cases depended on restricted data sets and left out essential components, making inaccurate predictions. Therefore, she recommends multidisciplinary teams rather than a disjointed team of modelers working on datasets from the field by epidemiologists. We need to create an ecosystem where we have people who better understand infectious diseases than taking somebody who can do the math, plug in the numbers, and then get an output and pronounce predictions. If you have a team that works together, the data generators, the data analyzers, and the data interpreters, it will work better.
Cite this article in APA as: Urs, S. (2022, April 5). Science communication, research data, and covid-19: A fireside chat with Gagandeep Kang. Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 4. https://informationmatters.org/2022/04/science-communication-research-data-and-covid-19-a-fireside-chat-with-gagandeep-kang/