The ongoing COVID pandemic has vividly illustrated how science and social context are intertwined. Early warnings from not only public health experts, but also social scientists and historians, gave clues to how the pandemic could unfold. Scientists searched for technical solutions in the form of therapies and vaccines. Simultaneously, policymakers and public officials looked for immediate, practical solutions to alleviate the excruciating burden on our healthcare systems. Historical knowledge on emergent diseases pointed to prudent approaches such as masking and social-distancing before specific scientific data supported these measures.
Eighteen months later, the technical solution has arguably arrived. Yet even in countries where access to vaccines is now widespread, the pandemic maintains a stronghold. Summer 2021 began with hopes for a return to normal in the U.S., predicated on assumptions of high vaccination rates and manageable variants. However, these assumptions have not held true, as we face new, more-infectious variants and struggle to expand vaccinations. The vaccine has proven to be a necessary, but insufficient, solution.
Disparate access to healthcare in the U.S. and around the world remains a persistent challenge, as does access to reliable information. Many individuals report discomfort with the perceived rapidness of the vaccine development, as they are aware of only the final 12–18 months of development, not the decades-long scientific advancement at its foundation. Others, particularly individuals from historically marginalized groups, have well-founded misgivings toward public health initiatives. Overcoming these barriers requires integrating perspectives outside of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into the problem-solving approach, as well as revisiting our assumptions.
As engineers, we are taught that our solutions and designs are only as good as the assumptions they are built on. We are trained to approach problems by first identifying our...
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