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Social sciences key to taming COVID-19

/ 04:02 AM April 25, 2021

A rising number of people are realizing that to successfully defeat COVID-19, we must harness science and technology. After all, who can argue against the science community’s success in developing the first batch of anti-COVID-19 vaccines in record time? In a country where investments in science and technology fall far short even among Asean countries, this awareness is a welcome development.

When most people think of the sciences, they do so in terms of the natural and physical sciences. These sciences include what is known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). For instance, in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the role of molecular biology, genetics, and epidemiology has come to the fore.

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However, there is danger in unduly focusing on STEM. In a prescient article in the journal Nature just before the pandemic, Dr. Hetan Shah, the head of the British Academy for humanities and social science, pointed out that epidemics are not just biological phenomena but also social. In a follow-up article in Nature last March 2021, Dr. Shah warned that science (i.e., SHAPE—social science, humanities, and the arts for people and economy) is not enough to save us from COVID-19.

He noted that social scientists are underrepresented in policymaking bodies seeking to corral the pandemic. Besides, STEM advancements must be complemented by insights from SHAPE. For example, social scientists were among the pioneers in advocating face masks to slow down the spread of COVID-19 because of observational and qualitative evidence.

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As nations rebuild post-pandemic, the role of the social sciences will even be more critical. The widespread damage wrought by the pandemic is not merely physical. For instance, there is a need to address mental health and social inequities, among numerous others, which will require inputs from the social sciences.

On a broader scale, the solutions to other global challenges such as global warming and biodiversity loss will likewise benefit from SHAPE insights. This is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has included an increasing number of social scientists in its assessment reports. Along the same vein, the OML Center has recently partnered with the Philippine Social Science Council to stimulate discourse on climate adaptation among our leading social scientists.

Forest conservation in the Philippines provides another illustration of the convergence of STEM and SHAPE. Ecologists, foresters, and biologists innovate forest management approaches and technologies to rehabilitate barren areas and conserve biodiversity-rich forests. In turn, social scientists enrich these programs by assisting in the formulation of strategies and projects to address the well-being of millions of people living in these upland and forested areas.

So as we “shape” our strategies for the pandemic, let us make sure that the solutions we develop “stem” from a rich interaction of all the sciences.

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Dr. Rodel D. Lasco is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) of the Philippines. He is the executive director of The OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions (http://www.omlopezcenter.org/).

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TAGS: Commentary, COVID-19, Rodel D. Lasco, social science
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