Bridging the cultures of science, policy and politics: learning from the pandemic
Scientists outside the formal advisory mechanisms also have critical roles and obligations. Their views in public can be highly influential on both the public and the policy maker, particularly at times of crisis. Therefore, they should reflect on their public responsibilities and the professionalism of their conduct.

Sir Peter Gluckman (Director, Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland and Chair, International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA)) and Kristiann Allen (Associate Director, Policy and International Engagement, Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland / INGSA Secretariat)

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the interface between science and policy decisions into sharp focus. In general in most countries, science has been broadly accepted as a trusted institution in the context of the pandemic. The acceptance of scientific advice has not been universal, however. In the absence of a widely available therapeutic or vaccine, it is clear that the proven available measures entail enormous social and economic consequences, which makes it impossible to discuss the science and its use in the pandemic independently from its social, economic and political contexts.

For instance, the tension between those who would prioritize re-opening the economy and those favoring the continued constraints to try and reduce viral spread, may be undermining confidence in science – whether intentionally or not. With this comes the concern that it will become even easier for such denial of evidence and misinformation to spill into ever broader domains of social and economic life. Ironically such misinformation will fuel vaccine resistance making exit from the pandemic more difficult.

There has been a broad diversity of decisions that have been made in different jurisdictions. In terms of declared policy aims, the spectrum ranges from seeking total jurisdictional elimination (eg New Zealand) to seeking herd immunity (eg Sweden). Policy measures range, for instance, from early and total lockdown to the imposition of social restrictions late in the first phase, and from intensive and early testing and tracing, to little focus on contact tracing at all. The question is how (by what means and to what effect) has science been used in reaching these distinct policy decisions. What might we now learn about the need for and the shape of science advisory ecosystems. Thus, it is instructive at this stage, to examine the interfaces between science, policy and politics in Covid-19 for the lessons that are beginning to emerge.

INGSA is collating information relevant to these questions using its collaborative policy making tracker to enable research on how this interface has operated and may be changing in more than 100 countries. The tracker is particularly focused on the mechanisms and nature of the science advice provided rather than the policy decisions made or the outcomes achieved. The EScaPE project is partnering with INGSA to use this data and network to coordinate the deeper dives that will be needed to better understand the dynamics of evidence use in Covid-19 policymaking for selected jurisdictions. Even in a country like New Zealand, where the system is small and relatively transparent, different narratives exist around key decisions that have been made. While many governments have placed science at the forefront of their decision-making, it would be naïve not to see the strong overlay of social, economic and political considerations.

While many of the lessons from this pandemic are generalizable across the evidence-to-policy interface, what distinguishes a crisis such as the pandemic is the much more immediate connection between the provision of evidence and the decisions that are made by authorities, which can have extraordinary consequences for citizens and the economy. The distinct characteristics of the SARS-2-CoV virus mean that we have been dealing with a high level of uncertainty over the behavior of the virus and in particular the nature of the immune response. Given the gap between what is known and what is concluded in this context, the inferential risks that emerge in recommending any action, should weigh heavily on all that are involved.

The first report from the INGSA tracker is now available and it highlights both the varied nature of policy aims, operational decisions, and the available structures and competencies to utilize scientific capacities effectively. In many cases scientific input has been sought and conveyed via ad hoc processes. Thus, going forward, one important question to examine is whether this will lead to the development of more stable science advisory mechanisms in such countries.

As we continue to explore in our research the nature of the interfaces between evidence and policy and politics through the INGSA tracker and the EScAPE project, there are at least seven dimensions that merit reflection and analysis. This essay does not attempt to resolve the issues but suggests areas for interrogation.

  1. What kind of evidence is presented or proactively sought?

There has been enormous variation in the range of disciplines and experts that have been mobilized during the pandemic, whether at the request of governments or proactively. In some countries, epidemiologists and virologists have understandably been the key actors, in others it is mathematicians and economists acting as modelers who have had much attention. But the extent to which countries relied on a broad or narrow range of inputs has varied. For instance, the breadth of the social sciences has been widely and formally marshalled in some countries, but in others they these have been used more narrowly or not at all.

And yet, many disciplines are needed to provide essential contextual data to help frame and put parameters around the models used and the policy responses to them. For instance, knowledge of human behavior is key to how the pandemic has evolved in different contexts and the effectiveness of policy decisions. Or modelling scenarios about herd immunity in the absence of data of information about whether immunity is long-lasting, simply cannot stand up to scrutiny. Thus, models should not be positioned as a description of reality but rather as a way of describing what might happen, based on the assumptions made. When models are presented without making transparent their underlying assumptions, and without providing any sense of uncertainty or probability, their projections can be called into question and can add confusion to policy decisions and the public discourse.

Policy makers and politicians cannot be expected to be scientific referees. It is therefore important to consider how these different lines of evidence are brought together and legitimately integrated to inform decision making.

  1. What processes and institutions are used to provide evidence?

Different jurisdictions have very different ways by which scientific evidence is brought to the policy and political arenas. The distinction between policy and politics collapses somewhat in emergencies, but as the crisis lengthens and its long-term socioeconomic impacts become clear, it is inevitable that that political considerations will grow.

In some countries science advisory ecosystems were already well developed and in others they were essentially non-existent. But this does not seem to predict well how countries have responded to the pandemic. Is a demonstrable failure of the response in a country with an otherwise well-regarded advisory system, a problem of the system or does it say something about the dominance of political hubris?

Mechanisms for science advice vary across countries and have developed in different institutional, cultural and historical contexts. There is little in the pandemic response to suggest that one type is superior to another and indeed it may be that it is the capacities of the individuals involved rather than the nature of the process that really matters. Ecosystems of science advice comprise a diversity of actors, ranging from scientists and experts within ministries, especially public health agencies, through to national academies, and political or apolitical science advisors.

  1. What are the effective attributes of those individuals within science advisory ecosystems?

There are two interdependent perspectives on what makers for effective science advisory ecosystems. One focuses on advisory mechanisms’ institutional framing – the formal institutions and processes by which the policy community and science community interact, seeing these processes as key to the validity and legitimacy of advice. The other focuses on the attributes and skills of those engaged in the institutional processes. While the institutional framing is essential to legitimize who has access to engage in science advice, the positioning and skill of advisors plays an essential role.

Roger Pielke Jr., in his book The Honest Broker, makes the powerful case for distinction between advocacy and brokerage at the interface between science and policy. We would extend this argument to suggest also that it is important also to distinguish between evidence synthesis and evidence brokerage. These are distinct skills and need not reside in the same structures or individuals.

The broker role is to take the evidence from multiple domains of expertise and to integrate and transmit it in accessible ways that that respect, identify and explain uncertainties, while defining the options (and their implications), as well as any inferential or inductive risks associated with the conclusions reached.

Too often those engaged fail to communicate uncertainty and the inferences being made. An early decision to rely on herd immunity, made when little was known about the virus, is an example where inferential risk may not have been fully considered. This raises the generic question of whether evidence brokerage and the critical appraisal of evidence synthesis need to be both a trained skills and an institutionalized role.

Indeed, brokers need to be trusted communicators to both the public and decision-makers. To be trusted they need to summarize the scientific evidence without regards to political considerations. In some countries, it seems that sense of autonomy has been difficult to maintain or has been lost.

  1. What is relative role of formal and informal advice and advisors?

Science advice occurs through two major routes: formal processes of committees, panels, commissions and advisors and informal processes of discussion between key actors, especially advisors. Formal processes tend to be well documented and deliberative. They are ideal for dealing with complex analysis and data interpretation and for integrating knowledge across disciplines. They can be relatively transparent, at least in retrospect. Yet the reality of decision-making is very much dependent on informal advice. These are the unscripted conversations between senior officials and decision-makers, of which scientists may be part. Informal advice is valuable and effectively essential at least when it involves those scientists in roles specifically designed to provide it, such as a senior government scientist or science advisor. Advice from these roles is common and highly influential. By its very nature it is more obscure and relies on the integrity and the skills of the advisor(s). The relative role played by these forms of advice in the decisions made is an area meriting research. But policy makers and politicians may also reach beyond their usual advisory networks for input. In the case of scientific input by such means, there are perhaps special obligations on the scientist, as discussed below

  1. Can scientific evidence be integrated with the normative arguments of politics?

Even at this stage in the pandemic, there remain many scientific unknowns. Science advice mechanisms need not to be afraid to acknowledge these unknowns and uncertainties. Indeed, their messaging is more trusted when uncertainties are openly expressed and confronted. However, the decisions governments must make in the pandemic cannot be delayed and are based on tradeoffs that cannot be reduced to simplest equations. The politician will be adaptively adjudicating between health, social and economic impacts (not to mention their interdependencies), as well as expert opinion, public opinion and their own political destinies (and likewise, the interdependencies of these).

No decision is made in the absence of some level of political calculus, even in a pandemic. Clearly the evidence base is a key input but not the only input into those decisions. In different countries, there has been very different calculus which has likely contributed to the diversity of decisions made: late rather than early lockdowns; when and how to exit social restrictions; the degree of economic closure, etc.

Thus, the interface between the expert input, the policy input and political decision-making clearly merits research and the pandemic offers unique comparative opportunities. The nature of that interface depends on the integrity and legitimacy of the science advice, the perceptions held by the political community, and the quality and independence of the policy community and the respect for evidence by all parties. The interface cannot function on the assumption of purely technocratic input but equally it cannot function well in the absence of that input.

The key issue in science advice must be to avoid ‘policy-driven evidence’ where the quality of the advice is undermined by a predetermined political lens. The diplomatic skills of scientists acting at the interface become critical, and requires more than just speaking “truth to power” if it is to be heard.

  1. What are the ethical issues?

There is a dearth of guidelines related to the role of science advice in emergencies and crises. The OECD undertook some related work after the L’Aquila and Fukushima tragedies, but did not address the specific issues of the conduct of scientists in emergencies, for which advising must operate at an accelerated pace and with heightened political influence. The normal processes of peer review on which science depends for its integrity may not be operating in such contexts. INGSA and the International Science Council have established a joint working party to consider these issues. Decisions made about who is at the table, what disciplines are represented, how uncertainty is expressed, how to deal with conflicting views, and how to interface with the policy and political community and with the public all have ethical dimensions. Exploring these issues might lead to specific guidelines.

One issue which has emerged is that of transparency of advice and identity of the advisors. Transparency is essential for trust especially when collective action from the public is required. While transparency can never be absolute or as timely as many would wish for on some issues, there is no justification for not being transparent as to whom is providing advice.

  1. Is there an ‘appropriate’ conduct for individual scientists?

The comments above highlight the many obligations on experts called upon to assist in an emergency and on the need for the brokerage to be conducted to a very high standard of scientific analysis and integrity. Scientists outside the formal advisory mechanisms also have critical roles and obligations. Their views in public can be highly influential on both the public and the policy maker, particularly at times of crisis. Therefore, they should reflect on their public responsibilities and the professionalism of their conduct. Academic disputes inappropriately carried out in public can reduce trust in the evidence more generally and leave a field ripe for political mischief. Yet, where there is a solid scientific basis for disagreement, the public has a right to know. To be sure, some scientists will feel compelled to be involved, whether by a sense of duty or by the competitive nature of the system they work in (or both). This can be a welcome contribution in a media environment that is constantly seeking fresh input. But caution is always advisable where media can also deliberately fuel debate and controversy by seeking experts with apparently opposing views (and often ignoring the important question of whether there is a broader scientific consensus or not). Some guidance by and for the science community on communication in emergencies could be useful in this regard.

Before and after

In due course, there will be extensive analysis of how different countries handled the crisis. There will be many commissions of inquiry and in some countries, this may put some scientists and policy makers on the defensive, which could make the robust analysis of the responses more difficult. One major question will be the role of preemptive planning, the use of risk registers, pandemic planning exercises etc. and whether composite indices such as the Global Health Security Index had suggested to some countries that no further preparatory action was necessary. In turn, such reviews may lead to more general questions as to the nature of science advisory mechanisms and whether they are fit for dealing with emergencies.

No doubt there are many more questions that will merit consideration once the pandemic settles. But the questions above suggest a major agenda for the community of researchers and practitioners interested in the interface between science and policy. The EScaPE project and its partnership with INGSA provide a research platform where these issues can be explored and discussed.

Note: This blog is updated and modified from Gluckman’s essay at https://www.ingsa.org/covidtag/covid-19-featured/gluckman-interface/ published in May 2020

shares