Science policy advisers aim to learn pandemic response lessons

Scientific advisor network starts collating examples of research influencing, and failing to influence, policy

March 25, 2020
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As policymakers focus on the immediate horror of the Covid-19 pandemic, an alliance of science diplomats has begun compiling intelligence from the crisis to help avert future catastrophes.  

The International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) has launched a “landing pad” for information and resources about “the science and policy interface” of the epidemic.

“The aim of this site is not to weigh in on the epidemiological issues of the virus or the validity of certain containment measures over others,” INGSA explained. “The focus will be on mechanisms to enable the effective utilisation of evidence into policy and practice – what was done well, what was done poorly, and what were the outcomes and lessons.”

INGSA chairman Sir Peter Gluckman, former chief science adviser to the New Zealand government, said that as the pandemic lurched towards a “potentially horrific crescendo” in many countries, leaders were naturally dealing with the immediate crisis. “But it would be a terrible mistake if attention is not given now, and progressively, to the long-term matters that this epidemic will throw into sharp focus,” he continued.

“Both for the immediate and particularly for the longer term – including future pandemics and other crises – it will be important to understand and learn from [the] varied interactions…between science, experts, society, policymaking and politics.

“For example, while on a very different time course, climate change shows many of the same issues – the conflicts between science, policy, vested interests and politics and a tendency to think that addressing it can wait.”

INGSA has issued a call for resources – including links, blogs, academic papers, videos and online panels or webinars – that demonstrate how research has influenced or failed to influence policy and society.

The network wants examples of evidence-informed policy mechanisms at the local, regional, national and international levels, and how regulation and regulatory science interact with the decision-making process.

Sir Peter said such intelligence would prove vital everywhere, including his native New Zealand. “What lessons will there be for the crisis management system, for the health system, for the science system, for managing fragile supply lines and enormous disruption to our physical connectivity to the rest of the world?”

He told Times Higher Education that in future months, retrospective reviews would examine how the pandemic was handled. The groundwork for that process needed to begin now, so that maximum good could be extracted from the calamity.

Sir Peter said: “The issues of how science was used or not used will be on top of the agenda, as will the instruments of misinformation. What do we learn from it now, and more importantly, what questions do we start thinking about for the future?”

In a separate development, the Australian Academy of Science has called on the federal government to publish the scientific evidence underpinning its coronavirus-related decisions. The academy says that Australia should copy the approach of the UK, where the data is published by the UK Government Office for Science.

“In a fast-moving situation such as this, transparency must be at the core of government responses,” said the academy’s president, John Shine. “It is critical that the public has confidence that governments are basing their decisions on the most up-to-date scientific advice and evidence.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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