houston voices

University of Houston: 3 problems with the 'covidization' of science and research

The "covidization" of science and research refers to the distortion of impact the pandemic has had on the way science is funded, produced, published and reported on. Graphic byMiguel Tovar/University of Houston

It has been – and for a while, will be – everywhere. The words: COVID-19, coronavirus and pandemic. According to an article by Holly Else in Nature, "coined in April by Madhukar Pai, a tuberculosis researcher at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, 'covidization' describes the distorting impact of the pandemic on the way science is funded, produced, published and reported on."

Pai identifies three problem areas within "covidization."

Where'd the money go?

"The first is funders diverting or delaying money from curiosity-driven research and handing it to pandemic-related proposals." This can make researchers feel like their work is no longer critical if it doesn't have anything to do with the coronavirus. For instance, Lis Evered, a researcher who studies peri-operative cognitive disorders in older people, said in the same Nature article: "I was carrying around this burden of thinking that I'm a complete failure because I'm not leading the charge on curing COVID. It felt like my work was not important anymore."

Qualified or not?

"The second problem is scientists from different fields now researching and publishing on epidemiology, infectious diseases and immunology — areas in which they might be poorly qualified." As irritating as it is dangerous, the host of self-proclaimed experts discipline-hop and suddenly are experts on a virus without the credentials to back them up. "Irritating" is right: we've all read the Huffington Post articles that proclaim smugly they are "scientists" or "researchers," only to discover with some simple googling that the person has a Ph.D. in Victorian literature or something else unrelated.

An aside — this is not to say the soft sciences can't weigh in on COVID-19. For example, Ezemenari Obasi in the Department of Psychological, Health, & Learning Sciences at University of Houston is doing research to combat vaccine hesitancy in Black and Latinx communities in the city, by listening to their fears.

It's raining...COVID research?

"The third is that, given the deluge of research done under the umbrella of COVID-19 often published as unreviewed preprints, it's increasingly hard for the public, media and policymakers to distinguish reliable evidence from the rest." This is the burden which comes from an excess of information at our fingertips.

In Science magazine, Kai Kupferschmidt writes: "New England Journal of Medicine Editor-in-Chief Eric Rubin concedes there is a tension between rigor and speed. The journal's review process for COVID-19 papers, he notes, is basically the same as always but much faster. 'We and authors could do a more careful job if we had more time,' he wrote in an email. 'But, for now, physicians are dealing with a crisis and the best quality information available quickly is better than perfect information that can't be accessed until it's not helpful.'"

"Blogs and preprint servers mean that half-baked ideas and poor-quality research do not have to pass peer review, [Pai] says. For instance, studies from non-experts have appeared on how eating cucumber and cabbage can protect against the coronavirus."

The big idea

Know and believe that your research is important, whether it is COVID-related or not. Stay away from dubious "research findings" that might not be in a person's wheelhouse. And whatever you do, stay healthy – mentally and physically. History shows that every other health crisis has run its course from Spanish Influenza to Zika to the swine flu. The "covidization" of our culture will one day come to an end.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

A new initiative from the city of Houston and Hertz aims to boost Houston's electric vehicle rental fleet. Photo via Mayor Sylvester Turner/Facebook

A new partnership between The Hertz Corp. and the City of Houston will bring 2,100 rental electric vehicles to Houston, according to an announcement from the organizations earlier this week.

Dubbed Hertz Electrifies Houston, the program aims to boost Houston's EV rental fleet, as well add to the city's charging infrastructure and EV education and training opportunities.

The new vehicles will come from automakers Tesla, Polestar, and GM and can be rented to leisure and business customers, as well as rideshare drivers.

In partnership with bp pulse, Hertz Electrifies Houston will also bring a new EV fast-charging hub to Hobby Airport that's designed to serve ride-hail, taxi fleets and the general public.

"Our goal is to convert all non-emergency, light-duty municipal vehicles to electric by 2030," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a statement. "This partnership with Hertz will provide an invaluable boost to achieve this goal and the goal of our Climate Action Plan for Houston to be a net-zero city by 2050."

In addition to the new fleet and charging hub, Hertz announced it will also donate an EV to Lone Star College-North Harris to help the college provide EV training to students in its auto servicing curriculum.

"Lone Star College-North Harris houses one of top automotive programs in Texas," Archie Blanson, president of Lone Star College-North Harris, says in the statement. "To make our students competitive and meet industry demand, we must ensure we are bringing the latest technologies, including a diversified fleet of EVs into the classroom.”

Earlier this month, Hertz also launched a Hertz Electrifies program in Denver. The initiative aims to bring 5,200 rental EVs to Denver. In 2022, the company first announced its plan to partner with bp pulse to install a national network of EV charging solutions for its customers.

Houston also has grown into a hub for EV and EV charging innovation recently. Houston-based Zeta Energy is leading efforts to develop efficient EV batteries, and received $4 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E Electric Vehicles for American Low-Carbon Living, or EVs4ALL, program earlier this year.

Houston's Revterra has also created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The company’s founder and CEO, Ben Jawdat, spoke about the energy transition on the Houston Innovators Podcast last month.

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