Cooperation not competition in the time of the corona-virus

Academia can be very competitive. Getting a job is competitive, at least tens of very good people will apply for a job at a reputable university. Fellowships that are stepping stones to academic positions have success rates of around 10% — so 90% of applicants fail. And once you are an academic, it does not ease off. You are under pressure to get grants and again, around 90% of grant applications fail. And government policy has tended to push for more and more competition, between universities and between academics. But, faced with the threat of COVID-19, cooperation is breaking out.

Academics* are as shocked as everyone else, and lot of us are thinking, can we help. Very few science and engineering academics know much about COVID-19 – very few of us are virologists. But understanding how COVID-19 spreads needs expertise that crosses several science and engineering disciplines.

To see this think about how a virus gets from an infected person into someone else. Presumably the virus starts in the mucus of the throat or nose. Then as the person breathes or coughs, a tiny droplet of mucus containing virus needs to detach from the mucus lining the throat. Droplet formation is soft matter physics not virology. Then the droplet is carried out on the infected person’s breath – fluid mechanics. It then needs to cross a room, carried by air currents there – more fluid mechanics. Before being inhaled and embedding itself in the mucus lining a new person’s throat**. Then if it can cross the mucus lining, it arrives at a cell and can then infect the cell — this is virology.

So, understanding COVID-19 transmission requires teams of scientists and engineers with complementary knowledge of biology, liquids, and fluid mechanics. It requires cooperation not competition. Also, lots of Zoom etc calls. I was on a Zoom call yesterday on understanding how masks filter out particles, such as those containing viruses***.

I think the bottom line here is that we have a good understanding of a lot of the basic physics behind how filtering out particles work, but lack enough quantitative understanding to make good predictions. But one mark of how fast science is moving is that one of the most prestigious nanotechnology journals (ACS Nano) is now publishing a paper containing sentences such as “We compare a moderate (80 TPI) thread count quilter’s cotton (often used in do-it-yourself masks) with a high (600 TPI) cotton fabric sample.”

Last year it was all graphene, this year quilter’s cotton. I don’t know what it will be like next year, but I hope for more cooperation and less competition. Cooperation achieves better results, as we seeing already as scientists and engineers work on virus transmission, and I think it is more enjoyable for the scientists and engineers involved.

* Except those who work on modelling pandemics and similar. I think many of those realised viral pandemics kind of happen relatively often, as one did 100 years ago.

** There may be more steps involved in transmission than this in some cases. For example, deposition on a surface that is then touched by someone, who then touches their then virus-containing fingers to their mouth. Hence we should wash our hands.

*** Many of my colleagues have doing a lot more than just Zoom calls. Great to see such good work, proud of them, and those in other universities.

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