Facts, equity, and democracy: The indispensable role of universities during COVID-19 and beyond

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Facts, equity, and democracy  | Bloomberg American Health Summit

Good morning, everyone. I’m delighted to join you for this year’s Bloomberg American Health Summit.

COVID-19 has been described as history’s first “data-driven pandemic.”

Even in the earliest days of the pandemic, data was amassing at a truly staggering rate, much of it generated by scientists and public health experts who were publishing tens of thousands of papers on the virus, sharing information and guidance in the media and with local and national governments, and revealing the disparate impact this disease was having across lines of income and race.

Research universities quickly proved to be instrumental players in the effort to make data available and legible to the world.

Take the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Anchored by the now iconic dashboard developed by Hopkins engineering professor Lauren Gardner, this site aggregated and rigorously vetted data about spread, testing, hospitalizations, deaths, and, later, vaccinations, from around the globe. At the same time, other universities – from MIT to the University of Washington to Oxford—were also working to stem the tide of the pandemic through research.

Together, these efforts constituted a realization of one of the critical roles that universities play in democracy: cultivating facts, making discoveries, and communicating reliable information to the public and policymakers to help shape sound policy.

The early months of the pandemic were thus a moment when we were making our work – in the words of today’s theme – truly visible, and there were real indications that we were restoring trust in our enterprise. One compelling data point surely has to be the sudden and surprising rise to celebrity status of Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci.

But there was also, we know, a dark side to the information overload of the pandemic.

Evolving (and sometimes contradictory) public health guidance, high-profile retractions about experimental drugs, and decontextualized data about vaccines—to take just a few examples—all fueled what the World Health Organization has termed an “infodemic.”

This not only made it harder for individuals to find reliable information, but also hindered public health responses and created the conditions for misinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish.

The infodemic was only exacerbated by (and also helped to accelerate) political polarization, which in the United States was already at historic highs. And as we know, hyper-partisan responses to the pandemic have quite literally cost millions lives and endangered our democracy by further diminishing the public legitimacy of basic facts.

But for me, the partisan distortions of academic research and the sporadic missteps of experts are not an argument to close off academic research and insight from the public. Indeed, I think one of the critical lessons of the past 20 months is that we must not shy away from but truly embrace openness and visibility.

At the same time, we have learned—often the hard way—that we need to be acutely aware of the risks of unfettered openness. The data we produce and verify, and the insights and recommendations we draw from that data, are a vital public resource.

But there is little room for error.

Given the velocity of social media, even isolated mistakes or corrections have the power to feed misinformation campaigns and to undermine the legitimacy of facts and expertise.

It falls to universities like Johns Hopkins and other research institutions to build guardrails to ensure that reliable research and insights reach the public in a timely and open manner while also meeting the highest standards of academic integrity.

Part of this commitment to openness must also involve direct contact and exchange with the people, communities, and policymakers who would most benefit from them. Our insights cannot be delivered from on high but must be in constant conversation with the communities and stakeholders they affect.

The Bloomberg American Health Initiative has demonstrated one powerful model for how this can work in public health through the Bloomberg Fellows, many of whom are here with us today. This cadre of fellows represents a growing network of expert practitioners who are not only trained in leading edge approaches to public health work but also embedded in communities and organizations.

They are bringing the best of the academy and the grassroots to bear on public health work in a way that advances equity through evidence.

The Bloomberg Fellows, their organizations, and our faculty, along with all of you who have joined us today, remind us that academic research, at its best, has the power to advance not only human knowledge but also the common good through rigorous science and expert public health scholarship that shape sound policy.

Our democracy and our world stand at a critical juncture, and it is incumbent upon universities like ours (and experts like you) to seek out new ways to make the extraordinary work undertaken within universities more open, more accessible, and more impactful for the world.

Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the summit.