Progress is speeding up. We live in an age of going big and going fast; just look at the COVID vaccine: the fastest vaccine ever to come to market. In less than a year, we went from sequencing the disease, developing the vaccine, testing it, producing it, distributing it, and getting it into millions of arms. I received my first vaccine dose on March 12th, 2021, exactly 365 days since the NBA shut down their season and the world changed overnight.
But as often is the case, when we dig into the chronology of social, racial, cultural, or scientific change, it becomes clear that change doesn’t just occur overnight, but instead germinates slowly for years before bursting onto the scene in an apparent epiphany of innovation and ingenuity.
The story of our COVID vaccine is a story of slow, plodding research, numerous failures, and 40 years of experiments to determine if and how mRNA technology might have the potential to be the base code for vaccines. In fact, the “breakthrough innovation” of our vaccine was the product of the meandering career of Dr. Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian scientist in the US, who struggled to receive research grants, bounced between research labs, and ran into numerous obstacles, dead ends, and the sound of crickets after being published in obscure scientific journals. Her conviction in mRNA technology is decades old, even though the vaccine is brand new and truly innovative.
Reading about her story and the immense potential for mRNA technology in future vaccines is inspiring, but it also is instructive: it’s time we stop expecting transformation over night. It’s time we stop holding social impact organizations who are doing big, audacious work to measurable, transformational results within 6 months.
Patience is a virtue, they say, but it is also a necessary ingredient if we’re looking beyond incremental change to major breakthroughs. Sometimes the status quo is perpetuated by those in power who reinforce their power, but other times, the status quo marches forward simply because we’re not patient enough with the risky ideas whose time just hasn’t yet come.