‘Governance of scientific advice’ key issue for next pandemic

Those who understand how their advice is likely to be implemented are more able to make it constructive, professor says

June 2, 2021
Ngaire Woods

Universities planning their role in the next global crisis should not allow themselves to become fixated on technological solutions, according to a leading expert on governance.

Ngaire Woods said the most important contribution universities could make to pandemic prevention was to embed themselves more firmly in governments’ systems of advice and communication.

In particular, they should work to strengthen the “connective tissue” between central and local governments. “There is a risk that the discovery and roll-out of vaccines is blinding people to other elements of pandemic preparedness,” said Professor Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.

“There certainly will be another pandemic, in the not distant future, and it’s not at all obvious that there’ll be a vaccine for that pandemic. Really good pandemic preparedness, as we’ve seen in some of the poorer countries that did extraordinarily well from the get-go, lies in local community-based capacity to test, trace, isolate – to get on top and contain from a very early stage.”

Speaking ahead of this year’s Universities Australia conference, where she is delivering the closing address, Professor Woods said local empowerment – rather than authoritarian central government – was a common factor among countries that had managed the pandemic relatively well, from Vietnam to Senegal to China.

“One of the things some countries struggled with was the lack of good connective tissue between central and local government, and the…rather slow recognition that they needed very locally based health resources that were trusted by people. In Britain, there’s a lot of suspicion between central and local government. What the pandemic shows us is that you need…sharing of data and information between local and central government.”

She said universities had a role in helping that happen. “Those of us who are engaged in educating people to take roles in government need to focus on what that looks like – how to educate people to do it.

“So many people in universities across the world are advising governments. A lot of scientists have not until now thought in a systematic way about the governance of scientific advice, nor about the governance of how that science advice is acted upon.”

She said universities needed to help ensure that scientists had “a good understanding of governance, and what’s required to take forward their advice – not because they need to be expert on it, but they need to be aware of it. As we’ve seen with Covid, those who understand how it’s likely to be implemented are more likely to be able to shape their advice in a constructive way.”

Professor Woods said the pandemic had also underlined the “critical” importance of scientific engagement between the West and China. Pre-existing research partnerships between Western and Chinese universities had enabled “very rapid” cooperation on Covid.

“At the same time, the antagonistic political relationship between governments has put universities in an extremely difficult position. They’re being told that they mustn’t have Chinese researchers in certain areas; to be wary of collaborations with China. The Chinese government is warning its students that they might face harassment if they come to Australia. That’s a really challenging terrain for universities.”

Professor Woods said that even at the highest point of Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the US, universities had been able to facilitate dialogues among both powers’ scholars. She said war with China would be “catastrophic”, so “the only option is to talk”.

“Then the question is, how do we structure those conversations? As universities, we need to find as many places as possible to reach out and build collaborative relationships with colleagues in China. However difficult that is, you will do much better by fostering a deeper understanding of each other than you will by stepping back and making every single encounter a confrontational one.”

She said statements about China from her native New Zealand revealed a “considered strategy” that was not apparent in Britain, where a “golden era” in China relations had ended with the leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Australia, meanwhile, was “highly interdependent” on China and lacked a global economic strategy to address that dependence – despite “occasional outbursts” about it – and both countries needed to firmly articulate areas where cooperation would be pursued.

“Climate change, energy policy, global financial stability, global health including not just pandemics but antimicrobial resistance, the governance of artificial intelligence, cybersecurity – here are some of the issues on which no country in the world can move unless there is cooperation between China and other partners.

“Where are the genuine challenges to our national interest, and what’s our strategy for dealing with that – over five years, over 10 years, over 15 years? China has its five-year plans, but it also has its much longer strategies. Instead of baulking at that, we probably need to emulate it. What is our 10-year strategy on these issues?”


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