Real Issues, Virtual Debate

Students from around the world argued two sides of COVID-19 policy

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Even as leaders everywhere have been grappling with measures to limit the second wave of COVID-19, a group of young adults (17-20 years old) from around the world came together --virtually -- to debate the ethical, scientific and social dilemmas that are debated, in parallel, in cabinets and parliaments in every country around the globe: Can we fight the disease and, at the same time, maintain the overall wellbeing of the population? Which is more beneficial, heavy or light prevention measures? The students  were divided into two multinational teams, each of which had to present evidence-based arguments for their side and be prepared to answer questions or reply to comments raised by the audience.

This initiative was hosted by the Davidson Institute of Science Education, the educational arm of the Weizmann Institute of Science, together with a group of 2019 Bessie Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI) alumni and members of the International Youth Science Club “A Window to the Future.” For approximately three weeks, students from Germany, the USA, Canada, Switzerland and the UK worked together as they prepared and practiced for both sides of the question (sides were assigned at the last minute).

“These talented students rose to the challenges of researching a new virus and disease; exploring new findings, which are published on a daily basis; and applying critical thinking as to what can be trusted to be scientific fact. They were also required to think of all the social, economic and mental ramifications of either locking down a population or letting infection rates rise,” says Dr. Dorit Granot, who heads the International Excellence branch of the Center for Young Excellence and Leadership in Science at the Davidson Institute.

“The long-distance preparation was simple compared to organizing the event, itself, in which debaters from places and time zones like New York and Germany had to act as a team, with a clock ticking, and adjudicators and audiences interacting with the participants. Good debaters think on their toes, combining the research skills of a PhD student with the timing of a comic. So we had to work on team dynamics in this platform, as well as being ready for unplanned, spontaneous occurrences,” she says.

The audience of about forty people from around the world, including ISSI alumni, members of “A Window to the Future” and members of the Weizmann’s International Friends Associations and Committees, were invited to vote on the teams – once following the initial presentation on the topic and again at the end of the debate. Policy-makers might be interested to know that  there was a slight shift between the first and second votes in which several people changed their opinions, though most stuck to their original side. In a post-debate joint statement from the two teams, the adjudicators Bendix Hempel and Rachel Aronov reminded everyone that “our main priority for now should be to guarantee the population’s overall well-being, taking into consideration all the effects and side-effects inherent in heavy and lighter prevention measures, and to be flexible in transitioning between actions as the situation warrants.”

Participating in an ethics and policy debate in which people from different backgrounds had to consider opposing views – and they managed to produce a consensus – has inspired the members of the Center for Young Excellence and Leadership in Science to plan on hosting additional virtual debates. “This cadre of talented students will soon be integrated into academia, industry or public office, and the skills they attain will help them become leaders in their fields, thoughtful managers and astute decision-makers,” says Granot.