by 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)
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
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.
- What kind of evidence is presented or proactively sought?
- What processes and institutions are used to provide evidence?
- What are the effective attributes of those individuals within science advisory ecosystems?
- What is relative role of formal and informal advice and advisors?
- Can scientific evidence be integrated with the normative arguments of politics?
- What are the ethical issues?
- Is there an ‘appropriate’ conduct for individual scientists?
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