As Prepared for Delivery at The White House, Washington, D.C.
Good morning, thank you all for joining us. Welcome to the White House. I’m Dr. Alondra Nelson, and I lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (or OSTP) — where we work to maximize the benefits of science and technology to advance health, prosperity, security, environmental quality, and justice for all Americans.
Seven years ago, in this building, in a room just one floor up and down the hall, a group of experts came together to take the long view and imagine a future that could be.
Like us, they were from OSTP, the National Security Council, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal health agencies — and also people from outside the federal government, experts who specialized in pandemics and public health.
Having spent the prior year and a half working together to grapple with the Ebola crisis, they paused to draw lessons from that experience and to ask: How can we do a better job of forecasting when an outbreak will become an epidemic or a pandemic — including where and how fast it will spread — so that we can be better prepared, and so that we can save lives?
They had a forward-thinking vision of what science and technology could make possible. A vision that emerged from experience and evidence. A vision that led to the center we’re launching today. And it’s a vision that President Biden deeply shares.
In a letter he issued just before taking office, the President asked, “What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible — or what ought to be possible — to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?”
Being able to have real-time analytics and forecasting of infectious disease threats, is exactly the kind of possibility the President was referring to.
It’s one of many science and technology innovations that we at OSTP are committed to advancing for pandemic preparedness — including through the Pandemic Innovation Task Force, which is identifying and accelerating new solutions for both COVID-19 and future pandemics. We’re grateful to co-lead that task force with several colleagues and agencies here today.
This Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics and its team of researchers, data scientists, and more will help transform U.S. and global capabilities, so we can stop outbreaks before they threaten the world.
And their commitments to scientific analysis will strengthen our systems, to not only deal with this pandemic and future threats, but also improve everyday health for all Americans — both in crises and, equally important, in ordinary times.
This center will be a national asset. That’s why epidemic forecasting and modeling was included among the first actions directed by President Biden, via his Day 1 Executive Order on strengthening the response to COVID-19 and leading the world on global health and security.
It is also a key priority in the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan that OSTP and the NSC released last fall — which makes today’s launch a promise kept.
Making accurate forecasts starts with gathering different kinds of data from varied sources.
A few short decades ago, we weren’t great at forecasting weather beyond a day or two.
As a result, lives were lost to powerful storms. Crops were ruined. Ships sank. And property that could’ve been secured, was destroyed.
But because we worked to understand how weather affects communities (and vice versa), and we have made transformative science and technology investments, in data, computational power, and infrastructure, another vision is possible: from ocean buoys equipped with sensors that can measure waves from an oncoming storm, to satellites in orbit, to weather stations around the globe.
Because of all this, we now have, at our fingertips, weather forecasts that can help us manage risks and be ready.
When we look at infectious disease forecasting, we are truly in the early days.
But today, as before, science and technology can help make the difference, help us be prepared, and help save lives going forward.
And with the right investments, we believe these aspirations can be achieved.
To be clear, it won’t be exactly the same as weather forecasting — the weather forecast isn’t always right, and human behavior makes infectious disease prediction fundamentally different from, and harder than, weather prediction.
But while disease models are imperfect and inexact, they are still incredibly powerful and useful.
This center will allow us to more clearly see threats on the horizon, so we can inform public health decisions and prepare accordingly.
Ultimately, it will seek to draw on data from across all of America, to help protect people across all of America.
Because this should truly be a national asset, with equity at its core: so that public health officials, and federal, state, local, Tribal, and community leaders all across America can make smart policy decisions, and so that all of the American public can be informed and ready.
Returning to President Biden’s question: “What can we learn from the pandemic about what is possible — or what ought to be possible — to address the widest range of needs related to our public health?”
Another lesson is that trust in government and in science are the enabling conditions for innovation.
And building trust will be key to this center’s data and analyses helping as many people as it aspires to. Because while we’re now at a point where scientists can begin to make forecasts, those forecasts must be trusted. A storm warning has limited value if an evacuation order goes unheeded.
We especially need to build trust with vulnerable and historically underserved communities, including communities who’ve been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Government and public health officials have to build that trust, every day. And it starts with better information — clearly communicated.
It’s going to take all of us to realize this promise, which is why I’m calling on the broader science and technology community today to help the team at the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics to succeed.
We are going to need — both in government and outside of it:
- more data scientists to help build the analytics and help us have more complete data;
- more software engineers to write code;
- more environmental scientists and engineers to build new kinds of data-gathering sensors to monitor for airborne pathogens;
- sanitation engineers to help collect and track wastewater data;
- user experience experts to create platforms and portals to communicate and share data to varied communities;
- behavioral scientists and social scientists to help government and public health officials build trust in these forecasts;
- and so much more.
This will be an ongoing effort of discovery and refinement — of new data science techniques and computational tools, coupled with new opportunities to collect more accurate and complete data.
Let’s ensure that this center is indeed a national asset, equipped with the most cutting-edge thinking and innovations.
To everyone who’s been working toward this day since that meeting upstairs in 2015: congratulations. We’re grateful for your vision, and your commitment.
I know it’s taken many years — too many, and for some, at tremendous cost — but there’s no doubt that your forecast that day several years ago was accurate.
We needed and will continue to need new tools, new forms of expertise, and wider sources of data — the ingredients of any accurate forecast.
Because when the next outbreak occurs, we must be better able to see the horizon, and better equipped to save lives. The American public deserves nothing less.
This is possible. The center we launch today embodies this possibility.