NY Times, Anthony Fauci opinion guest essay, 10 Dec 2022: A Message to the Next Generation of Scientists
Although I hesitate to use the hackneyed expression “It seems like just yesterday,” it does feel that way as I prepare to leave the National Institutes of Health after over five decades. As I look back at my career, I see lessons that may be useful to the next generation of scientists and health workers who will be called on to address the unexpected public health challenges that will inevitably emerge.
I share my story, one of love of science and discovery, in hopes of inspiring the next generation to enter health-related careers — and to stay the course, regardless of challenges and surprises that might arise.
Beginning with President Ronald Reagan, I have had the opportunity to personally advise seven presidents over my 38 years as N.I.A.I.D. director. Our discussions included how to respond to H.I.V./AIDS, as well as other threats such as bird flu, the anthrax attacks, pandemic influenza in 2009, Ebola, Zika and Covid-19. I always speak the unvarnished truth to presidents and other senior government officials, even when such truths may be uncomfortable or politically inconvenient, because extraordinary things can happen when science and politics work hand in hand.
If the far bookend of my N.I.H. career is H.I.V./AIDS, the near bookend is Covid-19. This pandemic was not completely unexpected, since emerging infectious diseases have challenged humanity throughout history, but some diseases can transform civilizations, and Covid-19 is the most devastating pandemic of a respiratory illness to afflict humankind since the 1918 influenza pandemic. And there is much to be learned from this ongoing experience with Covid-19.
The United States is reminded of the importance of continued investments in basic and clinical biomedical research. The major successes of the Covid-19 pandemic have been driven by scientific advances, particularly lifesaving vaccines that were developed, proven safe and effective in clinical trials and made available to the public within one year — an unprecedented feat.
Other lessons are painful, such as the failures of certain public health responses domestically and globally. We also must acknowledge that our fight against Covid-19 has been hindered by the profound political divisiveness in our society. In a way that we have never seen before, decisions about public health measures such as wearing masks and being vaccinated with highly effective and safe vaccines have been influenced by disinformation and political ideology.
It is our collective responsibility to ensure that public health policy decisions are driven by the best available data. Scientists and health workers can do their part by speaking up, including to new and old media sources, to share and explain in plain language the latest scientific findings as well as what remains to be learned.
Looking ahead, I am confident that the next generations of young physicians, scientists and public health practitioners will experience the same excitement and sense of fulfillment I have felt as they meet the immense need for their expertise to maintain, restore and protect the health of people around the world and rise to the continual unexpected challenges they will inevitably face in doing so.