The World Health Organization ranked vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to worldwide public health in 2019. In an effort to combat this issue, U of T has recently opened its own research centre at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, dedicated to maximizing the benefits of immunization through research and education.
One may expect that a research centre would emphasize either the hard sciences — which includes the natural and applied sciences — or social sciences when conducting research. But U of T has decided to take a different approach. Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, the Director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Disease (CVPD), emphasized the need for a “wider group of experts” from both social and hard science disciplines to advance research, countering the traditional emphasis on biology and immunology in health research.
Crowcroft believes that this multidisciplinary approach at the CVPD will help “turn the tide” in the battle against vaccine hesitancy.
The CVPD’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research is commendable. Tools from the hard sciences, such as big data, artificial intelligence, and manipulations of the biological mechanisms of vaccines are important for countering vaccine hesitancy. But it is also imperative that the CVPD remain consistent and committed to equal research in social theory and strategy. Only through fulfilling its promise of conducting interdisciplinary research can the CVPD meaningfully address the issue at hand.
It can, however, be easy to assume a bias against the social sciences, as much of the wider scientific community has. This bias could lead policymakers at the CVPD to ignore insightful results from the social sciences, which would seriously undermine their research decisions.
For example, Dr. Elisa Sobo, an anthropology professor at San Diego State University, has found that scientific denialism does not play an important role in making someone hesitant about vaccines. A key role is instead the social pressure of fitting in with other parents within the community. This finding indicates that the CVPD must combine science education with additional efforts tasked at changing the culture surrounding vaccine hesitant communities. Thus, it is important for the CVPD to consider hard and social sciences with equal weight to avoid pursuing ineffective strategies.
Through such understanding, policymakers gain valuable insight into how vaccine hesitancy works while simultaneously deepening the scientific community’s knowledge of this problem. As a field that focuses its studies on human behaviour, the social sciences play an important role in making vaccine hesitancy understandable for policymakers and researchers in all fields. It enables them to come up with new strategies to address the many aspects of vaccine hesitancy.
In addition, the research-intensive environment at U of T makes information sharing convenient between the hard and social sciences. Not only is collaborative research logistically easier because of the departments’ close physical proximity, but U of T’s hard and social science departments are among the best in the world, which ensures high quality work between the two to further our understanding of vaccine hesitancy.
As one of the top universities in the world, U of T’s social sciences departments rank among the best worldwide. Employing this knowledge pool when understanding a social problem is vital, especially when we consider its strength in research.
As a global leader in academia, U of T has a lot of influence over other institutions across the world. Taking a serious stance on interdisciplinary research would send a clear message about the importance of social science in academia, potentially pushing other institutions to do the same. Interdisciplinary research at the CVPD reinforces the importance of social sciences to other academic and social institutions in the world.
Vaccine hesitancy is a human problem: it does not operate under the constraints of scientific laws or logic, but is subject to the whims of human irrationality, and requires an emphasis on sociological research.
Thus, ensuring that the social sciences continue to be heard at the CVPD is a necessary step for U of T to be truly inclusive of all scientific perspectives. It will also improve the quality of research on the issue, policy-making decisions, and foster a spirit of collaboration in the wider world.
Long Vuong is a fifth-year Human Biology and Statistics student at University College.