In my career leading science centers in California, Alabama, and Massachusetts, I have generally found science to be common ground, something that brings people together in shared wonder and inspiration. I still believe this is the case, but heated disagreements about COVID-19 vaccines have ruptured this shared ground like an earthquake.
In this polarized environment, how should leaders think through the decision on whether to mandate vaccinations? In recently announcing that the Museum of Science in Boston will mandate vaccinations for all staff and volunteers, I personally wrestled with this question. This is the common price of institutional leadership, and, in this case, the result of tension between the principles of science and public health.
Government, civic, and business leaders must step into this tension and decide how best to ensure that our communities reach herd immunity. Until then, needless deaths and illness will continue to surge.
One reason we are having trouble even discussing how to respond to the coronavirus is because we continue to rely on the misleading admonition: “Follow the science.” That, most surely, will settle nothing. Science is an act of continuing discovery that by its very nature demands being open to changing one’s mind and expanding one’s understanding. It always explores, always doubts, and always welcomes the skeptical voice. It is a joyful exercise of learning and growth.
A more humble and more trustworthy standard for resolving these issues is to “Follow the evidence.” That is what public health officials seek to do. They consider the evidence based on research, repeatable results, and verifiable data. They make difficult decisions based on the best evidence at hand. They cannot insist on 100 percent certainty when lives are at stake. In public health, one cannot wait until all the evidence is in to make the hard decisions.
When the Museum of Science decided to require COVID vaccinations as a condition of employment, we put ourselves in the position of public health officials rather than that of traditional scientists. We asked ourselves: How can we best help staff be safe and feel safe? How do we protect our visitors? How should we fulfill our leadership obligations on this most pressing public health issue? We assessed a mountain of evidence showing that vaccinations and masking are our best defense against the coronavirus. We also considered a smaller body of evidence casting doubt on that conclusion. We weighed both and chose the mountain.
Of the three questions we asked ourselves, perhaps the most difficult was the third: What does leadership require? It is a terrible thing to tell people they cannot be a part of your organization unless they do something they are opposed to doing. I struggled with this decision for many nights, not because the right answer was unclear from a public health perspective, but because I could see the faces of my colleagues whom I thought it would affect at an individual level.
Leaders of institutions, cities, states, and nations cannot wait for complete agreement when the consequence of inaction is death or serious risk. They must follow the evidence if it tips strongly in favor of taking action. Science embraces doubt, and rightly so. Leaders act in spite of doubt and take an evidence-based stand. They must give a clear message that everyone can follow.
To be sure, we still need more data about the vaccines’ effectiveness and safety. But the global effort and unprecedented number of clinical trials, the rigor of the studies, and disease prevention we’ve witnessed thus far gave us all the data we needed.
I sit at the helm of an institution that for nearly 200 years has been one of the public’s most trusted science communicators. In that role, I am committed to creating the conditions for science to be common ground. Whether the issue is mandating vaccinations or responding to climate change, we will assemble, debate, and consider all of the evidence. We will encourage and value dissenting opinions. And we will also act when called upon — and even call for action by others — when an issue is important and the evidence suggests that the benefits of acting exceed the potential harm.
We need not be neutral to be open-minded. In the case of the coronavirus, the evidence is compelling: The time to require vaccines has come. We encourage leaders of every institution, city, and state to take up the question of mandating vaccinations. Do what the evidence suggests. Do what is hard if you are persuaded it is right so we can prevent further harm and shore up our fractured lives and communities.
Follow the evidence.
Tim Ritchie is president of the Museum of Science.