A Profile in Courage: How One Person Can Save Many Lives

To champion science is to celebrate life. It is to apply the lessons of the laboratory to real-life circumstances. It is to address matters of life and death. It is to stay calm amidst chaos and confusion. It is to recognize the urgency of the need to act-in an emergency-when there is no time to wait for first responders to arrive on the scene.

It is to do what is necessary, and to do it with confidence and success, so a person can breathe; so we may all breathe a collective sigh of relief. It is to teach, promote, highlight, and volunteer not on behalf of science but on behalf of all humankind-from storm-ravaged communities at home to remote villages abroad. It is to provide basic life support (BLS) training and to practice CPR skills.

Drew Downing, Director of Outreach & Mission Fulfillment for the Disque Foundation, is such a champion. He is an example of how science can be (and is) educational and exciting, that you can convert knowledge into action; that you can serve your country and better the world, thanks to the expertise you possess; that you can translate your intelligence in an intelligible manner; that you can speak by doing; that yours is a universal language, once you show people the proper techniques for BLS or CPR.

When science is this tactile, it is transformational.

It does in an instant what no textbook can match or convey. It does what the best scientists and the best popularizers of science-never fail to do: to make the abstract accessible, to make the theoretical tangible, to make the academic actionable.

Disque Foundation travel to underserved and remote parts of the world, provide health care education, medical care and support for those who need it most.

Think of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking. Think of Neil Armstrong or Neil deGrasse Tyson. Each one exudes enthusiasm, particularly Hawking, despite his inability to use his own voice. (In a way Hawking’s computer synthesized voice was his voice, or the one we recognize whenever we hear him speak, as his voice survives online and elsewhere. His dry tone matched his droll delivery; and it made him not only a scientist of the stars and the universe but a star-and a celebrity-in his own right.)

Drew may be less well-known than these men, but he is no less passionate about his mission. He is, like Sagan, Hawking, Armstrong, and Tyson, a man who represents the ideals of the Enlightenment. He is also, like Winston Churchill, a cautionary voice against the lights of perverted science; which is to say he understands how evildoers can weaponize science in an attempt to destroy us.

He was the chairman of the BioWatch Advisory Committee for the Department of Homeland Security in Orange County, California. He worked with local, state, and federal agencies regarding preparedness and response efforts involving weapons of mass destruction. He also led local health departments’ responses to public health emergencies ranging from infectious disease to wildfires. Concerning the latter, Drew led the Orange County Medical Reserve Corps, a medical disaster volunteer program that recruits, trains, and deploys doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to handle public health emergencies.

More importantly, Drew proves that you do not have to be a scientist to be a leader of scientists. You do, however, have to identify and inspire the best members of the scientific community. How else can you convince them to join a cause greater than themselves? Why else would they agree to risk their lives, if there were a fiery release of chemical weapons or a series of unprecedented wildfires?

The answers depend on who asks the questions.

The more the queries sound like a proclamation than a plea, the more likely people will plead to join your cause. And therein lies the answer to the question involving the biggest projects in the history of science, from the Manhattan Project to Project Apollo, “great leaders are great administrators”.

They know how to complement-and compliment-competing sources of power. They know how to unify large numbers of people by acting as an honest broker, whose role is clear, whose reach is comprehensive, whose responsibility is coherent. They know how to retain talent, when the trials of a mission are extreme and the exertions necessary to continue often try the resolution of the most patient souls.

They know how to prioritize among competing interests, without weakening morale or worsening an already tense situation. They know how to look calm, so others will do their jobs without fear or distraction.

Thus does Drew attract first responders to respond to the call of conscience. Thus does he show how science is a team effort, not a test of egos or a tale about the most exceptional scientist.

It is instead a story about how to be a master of strategy and a masterful tactician. It is about establishing-and executing-a plan, where everyone has a stake in the outcome and every outcome relies on the contributions of every participant.

Such is the basis of leadership. Such is the path to success for a leader in any discipline, including the arts and sciences, as well as the humanities and the attempt to improve the human condition.

We need leaders like Drew to save lives. We need them to send missionaries of science on a life-saving mission to teach BLS and CPR. We need citizens who can help themselves and to help communities so they do not have to wait for help. So that help can come from within, not from without, when every second counts.

We need science to be the stuff of everyday life.

Achieving that goal requires clarity of vision and a voice of conviction in which people have no doubts about the mission and no one denies that success is in sight.

Drew personifies these traits, as do leaders across the United States and around the world.

Let us welcome their involvement.

Let us work to earn their praise, as they are themselves worthy of the laurels we should bestow upon them.

Let us strive to fulfill the promise of science, so we may be safe and healthy.

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