Essay by Saran Twombly: “Decades before the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how rapidly infectious diseases could emerge and spread, the world faced the AIDS epidemic. Initial efforts to halt the contagion were slow as researchers focused on understanding the epidemiology of the virus. It was only by integrating epidemiological theory with behavioral theory that successful interventions began to control the spread of HIV.
As the current pandemic persists, it is clear that similar applications of interdisciplinary theory are needed to inform decisions, interventions, and policy. Continued infections and the emergence of new variants are the result of complex interactions among evolution, human behavior, and shifting policies across space and over time. Due to this complexity, predictions about the pandemic based on data and statistical models alone—in the absence of any broader conceptual framework—have proven inadequate. Classical epidemiological theory has helped, but alone it has also led to limited success in anticipating surges in COVID-19 infections. Integrating evolutionary theory with data and other theories has revealed more about how and under what conditions new variants arise, improving such predictions.
AIDS and COVID-19 are examples of complex challenges requiring coordination across families of scientific theories and perspectives. They are, in this sense, typical of many issues facing science and society today—climate change, biodiversity decline, and environmental degradation, to name a few. Such problems occupy interdisciplinary space and arise from no-analog conditions (i.e., situations to which there are no current equivalents), as what were previously only local perturbations trigger global instabilities. As with the pandemic crises, they involve interdependencies and new sources of uncertainty, cross levels of governance, span national boundaries, and include interactions at different temporal and spatial scales.