Ask a Scientist Initiative Connects Scientists with the Public’s (Often Personal) COVID-19 Questions

Hundreds of scientists have affirmed their commitment to helping the public understand the COVID-19 pandemic by volunteering their time to the latest collaborative effort between the National Science Policy Network (NSPN) and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Recognizing how the current pandemic has forced the global population to consider biological and epidemiological concepts they may have previously not considered, Ask a Scientist provides a platform for anyone – especially non-scientists – to pose the questions they have about COVID-19. To date, over 1500 questions have been asked to our team of scientists, with questions ranging from the basic biology of viruses to testing options and efficiency. Through an online portal that connects a person’s anonymized questions with our team, hundreds of scientists have been able to contextualize scientific evidence for a broad audience and help the public in times of uncertainty.

The questions submitted by the public probed the multitude of concepts coming into play during this pandemic. Some asked about the mutation rate or the mode of entry into healthy cells for the SARS-CoV 2 virus, while others asked about the effectiveness of various treatments for COVID-19 they heard about on the news. Answers to questions were approved by an editorial board with expertise in immunology and sent back to the person who asked the question. One phenomenon that surprised some of our volunteers is how personal many of these questions were, often referencing immunocompromised loved ones and family members categorized as part of a vulnerable population. “I found it striking to come across a question describing someone’s intimate worries about unknowingly transmitting the virus to a loved one, especially those more vulnerable to the disease, because it really speaks to the fear that many people have been feeling during this pandemic. I’m proud to have taken part in this effort to use our scientific expertise to help quell some of the fear by helping the public better understand what the latest science is saying,” says Amanda Acosta-Ruiz, an editor for this initiative. Amanda was involved in coordinating the volunteer scientists for these efforts, with particular attention on managing questions asked in various languages. “We received a couple dozen questions in languages other than English, including Spanish, Italian, and Russian. We connected the volunteers who had identified as fluent in these languages to these questions to make sure we answered them as efficiently as our other questions,” she says. Amanda sends her thanks and appreciation to Two Photon Art for sponsoring her work in this initiative. Two Photon Art makes science-inspired clothing, jewelry, and stickers to support scientists engaged in various forms of activism.

Ask a Scientist opens a direct and effective communication channel between the public and scientists, allowing for a data-driven response to potential misinformation shared in the public. This channel allows for unfounded coronavirus information to be quickly addressed, facilitating a more educated and informed public. People who have asked questions on Ask A Scientist have found the resource extremely valuable. "Thank you so much for your response and for all of your hard work,” reads one of the email replies, “we are praying for all the heroes like you!" We look forward to continuing to answer the public’s COVID-19 questions as we move through new phases of the pandemic.

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