Jenna Robinson of the Martin Center devotes her latest column to universities’ role in addressing the coronavirus pandemic.

Here at the Martin Center, we often criticize university research. Rightly so.

We have noted that academic journals are too expensive. We’ve argued that the publishing process itself is incoherent and slow. And that the peer review process fails to adequately vet new research. We’ve shown that the funding process for scientific research often leads to perverse incentives. We’ve also commented on the well-known reproducibility crisis in the social sciences.

We have also pointed out that research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is often trendy, repetitive, or irrelevant.

But in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, university researchers—working side-by-side with entrepreneurs and philanthropists—have shown that there can be immense value in studying important problems and harnessing expertise in the name of public service. …

… Universities are also helping us understand the scope and trajectory of the crisis. By now, many of us are very familiar with Johns Hopkins’ heatmap of COVID-19 cases, created by the university’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

And the models that have guided world leaders as they made decisions about their virus response were created by university researchers. First, the Imperial College of London’s dire coronavirus model prodded reluctant leaders into taking action. (It was later revised to have less-dramatic projections.) A model from scholars at Oxford University suggested that many people in the UK already had coronavirus but showed no symptoms. And now, many states and countries are using a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington to anticipate medical needs. It, too, was revised as more data became available.

… Social science and public policy programs have contributed as well, suggesting economic and policy solutions to the problems caused (or revealed) by the coronavirus pandemic.