Scientists everywhere want to help. We are helping, as much as we can. We’re donating lab supplies, skyping about our science with children stuck at home from school, and helping inform the public. Medical and education students are volunteering to care for the children of medical personnel.
But for many of us, we still want to do more. As research labs close, there’s an enormous potential workforce with the skills needed to run diagnostic tests, though many lack formal certification. Some opportunities are appearing, including a call for volunteers at University of Washington and the University of California at Berkley, and increased hiring by private companies. Michael F Wells, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, is creating a database of scientists who want to help. While that’s a step in the right direction, it can take quite a while for new volunteers to get up to speed. For example, a call-out from the Innovative Genomics Center at UC Berkeley cites a two to three week training period — precious time in a pandemic. In a pandemic, weeks matter.
This likely won’t be the last epidemic or pandemic. It may be worth investing in a system of training for these situations. While a Medical Reserve Corps does exist, the corps focuses on the medical and public health aspects of potential emergencies, without a specific role for scientists.
Scientists and students could be valuable help on the front lines. An organized, nationwide “Scientific Reserve Corps” could help. Scientists and students could complete training (and mandatory refreshers) on how to perform a variety of common tests, many of which could be similar to tests from their own research. They could train in collecting samples with proper PPE, analyzing data and data-sharing. For this to work, a Scientific Reserve Corps could encourage governments to plan for specific needs — coordinating types of test kits, extraction kits, and software — so that people could train before pandemic hits.
With financial aid or compensation, this reserve system could also help students, who often struggle to make ends meet, The motto of the army reserve is “twice the citizen.” Perhaps it’s time for twice the scientist.