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Home >Opinion >Views >Opinion | In age of uber science, we should not forget importance of human touch

In my lifetime at least, science has never been more in vogue. Virologists, scientists and researchers are today’s heroes, whose working vocabulary of big data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality offer a lay person assurance of accuracy, certainty and progress.

Quite rightly, the emergence and propagation of covid-19 has shone, perhaps an overdue, light on the collaboration between academics and technologists in addressing the world’s biggest challenges. My own company is at the heart of this collective challenge including close collaboration with the

Jenner Institute of Oxford University to develop a flexible vaccine manufacturing platform based on their novel adenovirus vector platform. Originally set up to test rabies vaccine candidates, the platform has been extended to scale and enable multiple partners from around the globe to develop and test covid-19 vaccines.

Another partner we are working with is Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas to test their two covid-19 vaccine candidates, one of which was originally developed to target SARS. Overall, our goal is to help Baylor to establish robust and scalable processes that enable industrial production.

The use of artificial intelligence, for instance has tremendous potential in both drug discovery and development; the data processing capacity of artificial intelligence (AI) systems can not only enable us to understand the potential (and potential issues) of a particular molecule with a far higher degree of certainty , but also accelerate timelines and reduce costs related to drug discovery. Such techniques are at the heart of, not only the search for a vaccine for covid-19, but the wider question of mitigation strategies to protect populations until the vaccine is found.

AI is enabling virologists to scenario plan and compare alternative courses of action in respect to their likely impact on infection and mortality rates, while big data is at the heart of tracking and tracing programmes to identify and reduce the spread of the virus. These technologies are also being employed to find the right combination of drug to treat patients who have contracted the virus, with unprecedented speed.

I find it fascinating (and, in professional capacity, gratifying) that such scientific data – from infection rates to mortality forecasts – has become a staple of every news bulletin.

However, I’m equally conscious of how such science can transform itself into a form of unequivocal ‘absolute’ for any decision or situation in which we find ourselves – “It’s right, or it happened because the data said so . . ." We should be wary of such assumptions; and not because my faith in science has been shaken in any way. Quite the opposite, my belief in and commitment towards rational research and investigation has never been deeper; and not only in the field of healthcare.

Scientific theory and data-driven insights are also enlightening my management decisions, helping me to collaborate better with colleagues and partners, and better understand my customers (both healthcare professionals and their patients).

My reservations about so-called science or data ‘absolutism’ are based on something more profound -- the power and impact of the human touch.

May be that’s why, according to research from Smith School of Business at Queen’s University, Canada, more than 40% of CEOs say they still make decisions based on intuition, despite having access to troves of empirical data.

According to clinical psychologist, Mary Lamia , emotions do not interfere with decision-making. Instead, they enhance it. Quoting from academic research, she writes : “Our feelings are designed to motivate us to pay attention to what’s important in terms of what is harmful or beneficial to us. Those feelings transform into smarter decisions when guided by conscious thought, which is your individual awareness of unique thoughts, memories, feelings and environment."

Far from discarding scientific logic in favour of instinct, I’m urging a recognition of both, as the most effective way to make decisions. I call it ‘decision balancing’. In my field of patient care, for instance, the potential of this combination has never been more evident.

Throughout the course of the pandemic, our manufacturing plants (as well of those of our partners) have remained operational to provide for the 85 million patients living with serious diseases (not necessarily covid-19-related) with the medication they need each and every day. Behind each data point is the reality of millions of professionals across manufacturing and healthcare, taking the decision to keep working and caring in extraordinarily difficult conditions.

In fact, the idea of patient care lies perfectly at the intersection between great science and great intuition; one delivered without the other would ultimately prove futile.

Science can be intimidating. Its presence on our TV screens and newspapers is unprecedented, and a sign of the unparalleled work going on to mitigate and fight this pandemic, from all corners of science, research and technology. But let’s not venerate the so-called ‘rational’ at the expense of the less rational, intuitive qualities which actually define us as humans.

Now more than ever, we need both, in copious quantities!

(Anand Narasimhan is managing director at Merck Specialties Pvt Ltd. The views expressed in this column are his own and do not reflect Mint's.)

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