We’re “Going to Have to Science the **** Out of This!”

Comet that says "NIH-NLM" above the surface of Mars.

When faced with the other-worldly, complex challenges of surviving on Mars after being left behind by his shipmates, Matt Damon, who plays an astronaut in the movie, The Martian, knows that his only chance of survival will require him to call on all of his scientific knowledge and understanding of the scientific method in order to meet his basic needs, explore new terrain, and establish new routines for everyday living.

Along the way, he must adapt to constant changes in the environment, technological disruptions, and the challenges of remote collaboration. Sound a little too familiar?  

The process of remote work that has become the new normal for most of NIH and NLM staff is beginning to resemble the experience of an astronaut stranded on Mars. It has required all of us to figure out how to meet our basic needs – food, socialization, activity, and rest; explore new terrain – home as the workplace; and identify new routines. We’ve continued to face man-made and natural challenges, such as fires, hurricanes and floods, been relegated to virtual meetings, and have worked collaboratively without the benefit of being in the same physical space. Yet, at no other time has it ever been so important for NLM to keep innovating for the future.  


I’m calling your attention back to the experience of our abandoned astronaut for a very specific reason — his use of scientific knowledge, insight, and experience to analyze opportunities and identify innovative solutions. This serves as a great model to illustrate the work happening at NLM.

NLM has prioritized the health and safety of our workforce while responding to COVID-19 and keeping our public-facing services available to the scientists, clinicians, patients, and families around the world who use them millions of times every day.  

We continue to work at the top of our game, adding nearly one million new citations in PubMed, expanding access to coronavirus literature through PubMed Central (PMC), and launching the first phase of the NIH Preprint Pilot to test the viability of making preprints searchable in PMC and increase the discoverability of early NIH-funded research results.

We’ve opened up new lines of research: our intramural investigators are applying their talents in computational modeling to examine microbiome in wastewater to detect evidence of the novel coronavirus, and using integrated comparative genomics and machine learning techniques to identify key genomic features that could differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other strains of coronavirus that cause less severe disease.


Yet, it’s not enough to do just enough. We must continue to prepare to advance and support the future of scientific communication and build on the public’s trust in NLM.

It’s long been a hallmark of NLM to scan the external scientific environment, verify observed needs, and create scientific communication and dissemination tools to support the scientific environment.

Think back to the 1980s. Something was happening within our country (genomics revolution on the horizon) and across NLM (building the foundation of the scientific communication tools needed to support genomics) that led to the emergence of the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 1988.

Many, many forces needed to be aligned to make this happen: the critical vision of how a library could accelerate a genomics revolution; the talents of one of the best scientific analytical and communications workforces; the political goodwill of a Congress invigorated by scientific opportunity; the specific language needed to create the authorization legislation; and, of course, a bit of vision, hubris, and innovation brought about by the NLM team of Drs. David Lipman, James Ostell, Dennis Benson and David Landsman..


So how do we “science the **** out of this” to create the future of 2030 from the foundations of 2020? Doing for science what the decade of 1980-1990 did for genomics.  

First, we begin with our strongest suit — collecting, organizing, and disseminating scientific literature. We’re doing this by aligning our investment in novel products, such as moving NLM’s  Sequence Read Archive (SRA) to commercial cloud platforms, while stimulating new investigations such as computational approaches to curation at scale to accelerate the automated indexing of large health data sets. We’ll build on our strong foundation that grows from and relies on systematic, public-informed decision making related to the acquisition, indexing and dissemination of biomedical and health information as stated in our authorizing legislation. We’ll rely on our 2017-2027 Strategic Plan guided by the NLM Board of Regents. We’ll also engage our researchers and staff, who interact with the public, to make sure that NLM’s offerings are available to the public, 24/7, without charge or restriction.


What other sciences can help with this? Organizational science can help us remain open to future growth opportunities that may look different from our past successes. Public health sciences can identify the end-users of NLM services and offerings ranging from patients to clinicians to researchers to policymakers, so that we can continue to ensure we are meeting their needs. The biological, physical, and clinical sciences signal the future ways that we might understand the health and wellbeing of all, with social sciences providing tools to reposition organizations towards the future they hope to shape.

However, the marooned astronaut in the movie did not completely rely on science alone. You might remember his (dis)pleasure at discovering the disco music left by his commander. (He didn’t really like her choice of music.) This minor plot point tells us that to effectively “science the **** out of this” requires that we continue to look to the arts and humanities to translate science into the human experience to help us understand what goes on inside of us, and show us what it means to be a human being. The arts and humanities are an important part of the way we bring our own inspirations and ways to design the future.

How will we make this happen? We’ll need to identify, align, and share new models for innovation. We’ll have to learn to relax the structure of video conference technologies to mimic the hallway and in-person conversations and reduce the sense of ‘presentation’ on the screen to become presence in the moment.

But most importantly, we’ll need your ideas and guidance. How do we keep innovation alive under the constraints of our everyday life in COVID-19? Can you help inspire us to innovate?

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

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