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Nobel Prizes and COVID-19: Slow, basic science may pay off

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Slow and steady success in science has made researchers hopeful in the fight against the pandemic. It even offers a glimmer of climate optimism.

Many years of advances in basic molecular science, some of them already Nobel Prize-winning, have given the world tools for fast virus identification and speeded up the development of testing. And now they tantalize us with the prospect of COVID-19 treatments and ultimately a vaccine, perhaps within a few months.

“This could be science’s finest hour. This could be the time when we deliver, not just for the nation but the world, the miracle that will save us,” said geophysicist Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The coronavirus was sequenced in a matter of weeks, testing became available quickly, and vaccines that would normally take years may be developed in a year or less, and “it’s all been built on the back of basic science advances that have been developed in the past three decades,” McNutt said.

She pointed to gene sequencing and polymerase chain reaction, which allows for multiple copying of precise DNA segments. That latter discovery won the 1993 Nobel in chemistry.

And even further back, in 1984, the Nobel in medicine went to a team for theories on how to manipulate the immune system using something called monoclonal antibodies. Now those antibodies are one of the best hopes for a treatment for the coronavirus.

“Despite the politics, despite whatever other things are slowing us down, Nobel Prize-winning discoveries from 20 years ago are going to be key to treating and preventing COVID next year,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “That was made possible by basic research.”

Basic research comes first. The benefits are typically reaped only later, in what is called applied

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Slow, basic science may pay off

Posted on

While the world wants flashy quick fixes for everything, especially massive threats like the coronavirus and global warming, next week’s Nobel Prizes remind us that in science, slow and steady pays off.

It may soon do so again.

Science builds upon previous work, with thinkers “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Isaac Newton put it, and it starts with basic research aimed at understanding a problem before fixing it. It’s that type of basic science that the Nobels usually reward, often years or decades after a discovery, because it can take that long to realize the implications.

Slow and steady success in science has made researchers hopeful in the fight against the pandemic. It even offers a glimmer of climate optimism.


Many years of advances in basic molecular science, some of them already Nobel Prize-winning, have given the world tools for fast virus identification and speeded up the development of testing. And now they tantalize us with the prospect of COVID-19 treatments and ultimately a vaccine, perhaps within a few months.

“This could be science’s finest hour. This could be the time when we deliver, not just for the nation but the world, the miracle that will save us,” said geophysicist Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences.

The coronavirus was sequenced in a matter of weeks, testing became available quickly, and vaccines that would normally take years may be developed in a year or less, and “it’s all been built on the back of basic science advances that have been developed in the past three decades,” McNutt said.

She pointed to gene sequencing and polymerase chain reaction, which allows for multiple copying of precise DNA segments. That latter discovery won the 1993 Nobel in chemistry.

And even further back, in 1984, the Nobel in medicine went