Science can save lives, but only if society lets it

Society faces lots of problems that science can’t yet fix, from the troubling rise in asthma to the lack of a cheap energy source that doesn’t harm the environment. But there are also plenty of cases in which scientists know enough to avert tragedy. Whether society acts on that knowledge is a separate issue.

The resurgence of whooping cough offers one example. A new type of pertussis vaccine was introduced in the 1990s that avoided many of the worrisome, but ultimately harmless, side effects of its predecessor. As biomedical writer Nathan Seppa reports, it is now clear that the new vaccine is much weaker than the old one. And a disease that was all but eradicated in the United States 40 years ago is causing outbreaks with tens of thousands of cases, a handful of them lethal. But the obvious solution — return to the old vaccine — is considered a nonstarter in this age of vaccine paranoia.

In the case of the recent landslide in Oso, Wash., that took more than two dozen lives, it seems that other societal forces trumped scientific information. According to news reports, geologists had long ago identified the area as highly unstable, and had recorded a series of historical landslides, including one in 2006. Yet that was not enough to prevent new homes from being built in harm’s way (see the April 19 issue’s Science Visualized).

Lives might be saved if authorities on the West Coast capitalize on the efforts of seismologists who are developing an earthquake early warning system. Contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze writes that the system, already in testing, can deliver alerts seconds to tens of seconds ahead of the most damaging seismic waves emanating from an earthquake’s epicenter. When a magnitude 5.1 quake hit the Southern California town of La Habra on March 28, the prototype gave seismologists in nearby Pasadena a four-second warning that shaking was imminent. That’s enough time for schoolchildren to dive under desks or for automated systems to shut down heavy equipment. But funding to fully implement the system hasn’t yet materialized. Imagine the frustration of the system’s designers if a deadly quake arrives before the money does.

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