Issue 03: Science on steroids

Words by Saloni Dattani
9th February 2021

Vaccines have given us a vision of science at its best. We’re back with a new issue of Works in Progress on science in the 21st century and our ambitions for its future.


2020 was the year epidemiology went mainstream. The disease that turned our lives upside down also planted concepts of science into the public consciousness. What is the reproductive number R0 of the coronavirus? The infection fatality rate? Which symptoms do people usually develop, and how long does it take to develop them?

It’s remarkable that non-experts can now answer many of these questions accurately, and staggering just how much information has been gathered by scientists to inform them.

The huge advances we’ve seen in the last year have inspired us to pull together the best writers on science for this issue of Works in Progress. Writers who draw from the pandemic to highlight the state of modern science – the disconnect between how people envision science works and how it is actually conducted; the successes and failures of different fields; and the ways that scientists are changing research for the better.

Our lead piece in this issue is written by Stuart Ritchie, scientist and author of the book Science Fictions. Ritchie unravels the highs and lows of scientific research in the time of a pandemic, and explains what it reveals about the system of academic publishing more broadly, in his panoramic article The great reinforcer.

Eleanor Hyland-Stanbrook illustrates the diverse world of microorganisms for this issue of Works in Progress.

The pandemic has underscored the value of speed in saving lives, and in this regard some scientists have given us vital time. What used to take months has now taken just days – from the sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome, to the design of the Moderna vaccine, to the discovery of the structure of the coronavirus spike protein. We’ve made progress at speeds that were once unthinkable.

These breakthroughs would have been impossible without building on decades of fundamental research into genomics and infectious diseases. What can we learn from fields that have produced high-quality science at lightning speed, to accelerate the pace of scientific research overall? Saloni Dattani and Nathaniel Bechhofer make the case for radical reform in scientific publishing, to ignite science by transforming it into a live software product, in The speed of science.

It’s easy to forget the role of soft sciences in our understanding of the world. Why exactly do the social sciences seem to lag behind the natural sciences? Matt Clancy guides us through the possibilities – poor incentives, muddled theory and a lack of practical application – and gives us a compelling answer to the question What ails the social sciences?

As Clancy points out, some social sciences do have noticeable and far-reaching consequences in the real world. One example is the unaffordability of housing in cities around the world. What determines the price of housing, and do our theories match with reality? Anya Martin details economic theory playing out in practice in Sydney, a city which has reversed the rise of housing costs, in A place in the sun.

Meanwhile, rental prices have continued to spiral in San Francisco and tech firms have looked to relocate in other cities. Is the grass really greener? John Kroencke argues that, without major housing reforms, the next Silicon Valley will face the same fate in Why tech cannot escape expensive housing.

It’s become a cliché to say there’s a trade-off between health and the economy during this pandemic. But many economists dispute this idea. Pedro Serôdio explains why economists who are normally concerned about debt almost uniformly support spending to suppress the virus, in How I learned to stop worrying and love the debt.

To top it all off, The Diff’s Byrne Hobart refocuses our perspective with a long term view of innovation. He explains how crises reshape our priorities and what financial markets tell us to expect about the years to come, in How Covid brought the future back.

Even more

What have we been upto since the last issue? Our editors Sam Bowman and Saloni Dattani have co-created a website called Anti-Virus, to combat misinformation about the pandemic. How do we know that false positives aren’t driving the wave of cases? Why is it mistaken to say that vaccines were rushed and unsafe? You can find out here. We’ve been in the press talking about the importance of scientific accuracy and hardheadedness in facing what’s to come, so if you find our site useful, share it around!

And in November, we were winners of the Emergent Ventures prizes for best new blogs! The other winners, Anton Howes and Alice Evans, have terrific blogs as well – take a look at them too.

We’ve also been reading about the technology behind new vaccines. Some of the clearest writing on this topic has come from bloggers around the world. Bert Hubert explains how to reverse-engineer the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, while Jonas Neubert and Cornelia Scheitz investigate the supply chains of the mRNA vaccines.

And we’ve put together a list of the best things we’ve read lately:

Thanks to the recognition we’ve had so far, we’re stepping up our ambitions for the future of Works in Progress, but we’ll share more on that in a later issue. Stay safe and have a great week!

– Saloni, Ben, Sam and Nick