With more than 24 million recorded COVID-19 cases, over 830,000 deaths, and the pandemic still raging in many regions of the world, scientists from an array of disciplines are asking why some nations have fared better than others at curbing its spread.
Now, a new University of Colorado Boulder-led effort aims to look at the role science itself has played in influencing how countries and their leaders have responded – and what that response (or lack thereof) has meant for citizens.
“It is not a secret that in some places around the world, including the United States and the United Kingdom, the response has been less than successful,” said Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor who studies the intersection of science and public policy. “There are a lot of tough questions to ask about how research was used, not used or misused and how that shaped outcomes. We intend to ask those questions.”
Funded by a $155,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, Pielke and an international team of investigators will spend the next year scouring public documents, interviewing journalists and political insiders and collecting data to paint a picture of how at least seven countries utilized scientific advice to address the pandemic.
From South Korea to the U.S. and U.K.
Countries to be initially in focus for the study include: The U.S. and the U.K., which have been criticized for sidelining or ignoring established scientific advisory boards and systems; South Korea, which has been lauded for flattening the curve without crushing its economy; and Italy, which was among the earliest nations hit hard by the virus. The researchers will also study Sweden, which never imposed a total shutdown, and Japan.
One key question: Are scientific agencies, advisory committees and protocols put in place to prepare countries for emergencies really working? And if not, why?
“For the past few decades, countries around the world have been working hard to develop systems to secure essential scientific advice in case of emergency,” said Pielke. “This is perhaps the first large-scale global test of this infrastructure and we have an opportunity to study it in real-time. If they don’t work as designed or have shown flaws then we need to identify shortfalls and fix them because science matters.”
Collaborator James Wilsdon, director of the U.K.-based Research on Research Institute, notes that early in the pandemic both the U.K and the U.S. were predicted to fare well through the pandemic, with biosecurity researchers ranking the U.S near the top of global health security indexes.
“On paper, both countries seemed to have lots of things working in their favor,” Wilsdon said. “They had very strong, well established, science-advice institutions and plans in place. But as it has played out, neither country has performed well.”
Meanwhile, smaller countries with more disjointed systems of science advice, like Jamaica and Vietnam, fared better.
Throwing out the playbook
Pielke notes that while pandemic-related expert bodies were established years ago via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health and Human Services, the White House used a different approach. The Trump administration empaneled a Coronavirus Task Force made up of mostly elected and appointed experts and few scientists.
“The U.S. pandemic playbook was thrown out early on,” he said.
It will take time to determine how such decisions fully play out, but through the project, dubbed the Evaluation of Science Advice in a Pandemic Emergency (EScAPE), the team hopes to better understand why some leaders threw out the playbook and others stuck with it.
The researchers will also explore whether policymakers listened to scientists, how those scientific advisors were chosen and whether their advice proved to be sound.
“There is a lot of work to be done to get beyond what you read in the news,” said Pielke.
The team will also collaborate with the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand, which has begun collecting data via its Covid-19 Policy-Making Tracker.
Pielke acknowledged that, due to country-specific dynamics, such as past experience with pandemics, what works for one country may not work for another. But he hopes the group’s findings will ultimately help improve the way scientists and policymakers communicate and ultimately, utilize science for effective policy.
“In order to make good decisions in the 21st century we need experts, but we operate in governmental systems where experts are not in charge. Anyone can be in charge. And there is a tension between people with specialized expertise and those who represent the will of the people.”
Adds Wilsdon: “It may be too late for this pandemic, but the hope is that our work can influence preparedness and resilience in the future when science is thrust again into acute tension with politics.”