Rapid Response in Times of Need

Innovation in the biotechnology industry is essential to our search for new and effective advancements to meet the healthcare needs of society. Artificial intelligence (AI), on the other hand, is one of the most rapidly advancing tools that can be used in the innovation process. The convergence of biotechnology and AI has the potential for immense benefits.

This was the focus of, “Engineering the Future: The Role of AI and Biotech,” held in-person March 14, 2024, at the National Academy of Sciences and streamed live on the NAE website. The event was co-hosted by the NAE and the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Engineering Foundation. A series of panels featuring pioneers, researchers, and thought leaders were on hand to provide their perspectives and expertise.

Preparing my remarks for the event prompted me to reflect on the important role the National Academies play in addressing emerging trends and innovations, such as AI, as well as our ability to provide a rapid response in times of urgency, such as pandemics.

Since its inception in 1964, the NAE has been called upon to provide independent, unbiased, and objective advice on issues involving engineering, technology, and innovation. As an “advisor to the nation” the NAE is able to convene the best and brightest minds in engineering and technology to respond to issues of importance; provide unbiased, evidence-based studies and reports that represent a consensus; and inform policy decisions that improve our nation and safeguard our citizens. 

This ability to convene the best engineers in the U.S. to advise the nation makes the work of the NAE unique among other engineering organizations. 

NAE members who participate in studies and reports by the National Academies reflect the broad mix of engineering disciplines and a cross-section of leaders in industry, academia, and government. This diversity of thought and expertise enables the NAE to accomplish its core mission as a “trusted voice of engineering leadership.”

As technology has advanced, engineers have been there every step of the way, from mitigating and adapting to climate change, to developing mRNA vaccines, to safeguarding our food and water supplies, to protecting our networks and power systems. NAE members provide the guidance needed to ensure the prosperity of our nation and safeguard its citizens.

Reports and consensus studies issued by the National Academies are the “gold standard,” although they take time — time to collect and synthesize research, time to review and discuss, and time to reach unbiased consensus. Time, however, is not always on our side.

That is where our rapid response capabilities are needed most. Perhaps the most striking example is the critical role the National Academies played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation and the world, the National Academies rapidly mobilized critical expertise in the sciences, engineering, and medicine to inform our government’s response and recovery efforts with evidence-based reasoning. Our ability to facilitate collaboration across research disciplines and between the public and private sectors was unparalleled. 

Here in the Washington, D.C., area, from March 12-24, 2020, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia separately issued a series of protection measures. These ranged from banning large group gatherings to closing schools to closing nonessential businesses. They issued formal stay-at-home orders on March 30.

Nationwide, the number of states with statewide stay‐at‐home orders in 2020 increased from nine on March 23 to 21 on March 26, 30 on March 30, and 41 on April 3, according to data released by the New York Times.

In advance of statewide stay‐at‐home orders the National Academies went to work. Leveraging their ability to convene great minds and provide expert advice, the National Academies studied and released several rapid expert consultation reports to the federal government. The first report, Rapid Expert Consultation on Severe Illness in Young Adults for the COVID-19 Pandemic, was released on March 14, 2020, followed by a report on SARS-CoV-2 surface stability and incubation released on March 15, 2020, a report on social distancing released on March 19, 2020, and a report on data elements and systems design for modeling and decision-making released on March 21, 2020. Additional reports and workshop proceedings released throughout the year covered everything from effectiveness of fabric masks to airborne transmission to reopening K-12 schools. The National Academies released 25 rapid expert consultation reports and workshop proceedings addressing the vast array of COVID-19 issues in 2020.

There are many lessons we can learn from the pandemic. And there are many advancements that can be made through biotechnology, especially when supported by assistive tools such as AI. But the efficacy of these innovations and technologies rests in their effective use by the people who are leading the way.