All the talents: policy needs social science and humanities’ input

From the battle against Ebola to climate change strategy, research insights from a wide range of disciplines are proving invaluable, says Mark Walport

October 22, 2015
Michael Parkin illustration (22 October 2015)
Source: Michael Parkin

Amid the continuing battle to contain Ebola, academic research has proved critical. But vaccine development is not the only contribution to have protected people from this lethal disease. The varied insights of anthropologists on the customs of sub-Saharan African societies have also helped to save many lives.

A key challenge for those responding in West Africa was to prevent disease transmission. The protocols developed for the dignified interment of Ebola victims made families more willing to release the bodies of loved ones to the authorities and reduced numbers coming into physical contact with the dead. Anthropological studies of burial practices – one of which was funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and completed several years prior to the Ebola outbreak – pointed the way forward.

The participation of anthropologists in tackling Ebola did not end there. Along with social scientists from several other fields, they formed a sub-group of the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. Funded by the Department for International Development and the Wellcome Trust, the group supplied important advice on factors contributing to Ebola victims’ unwillingness to present themselves at medical centres. The group also provided invaluable insights into regional norms around travel and caring for the sick, as well as tips on how to address Ebola-related stigma and, importantly, how to promote culturally sensitive and safe funerals.

The case of Ebola does not simply point yet again to the unforeseen uses of academic research. Even more significantly, it highlights the central contribution of the social sciences and humanities to informed decision-making by national governments and transnational organisations. Put simply, the perspectives of historians, psychologists, geographers and others – alongside anthropologists – are essential to sound policy development and delivery. This truth, however, has been properly recognised only relatively recently.

When I first started working at the Wellcome Trust, researchers attempting to run projects in sub-Saharan Africa were struggling to find effective ways to engage local people. Most notably, perhaps, they were failing to appreciate that – culturally – community-wide consent in many societies is as important as individual consent (if not more so). Acknowledging and embracing this reality is crucial to productive research activity in that region.

Indeed, no society operates in a cultural vacuum. Successful public health programmes in the UK, for example, depend in precisely the same way on an understanding of the values, concerns and expectations of the people who will be affected. Today, our domestic approach is much improved, as policymakers consciously seek social science input during policy design, as well as during crisis management. Behavioural scientists regularly advise on how individuals and groups are likely to react in emergency situations, offering expertise on topics such as psychological effects and levels of social disruption. And policymakers and officials pay greater attention to the most persuasive techniques of explaining risk to the general public, as with pandemic flu.

We also recognise the value of transparent debate. Continuous innovation is necessary to meet the challenges we face, from infectious disease to climate change. Ill-informed public discussion of emerging science and technology can all too easily hinder their development and postpone (or prevent) the social and economic benefits they may offer. The recent debate over the ethics of mitochondrial DNA transfer (or “three-parent babies”, as the press preferred to call it), put to a free vote in both houses of Parliament, benefited from parallel consideration of both scientific capability and complex ethical issues. The humanities and social sciences are instrumental in helping to frame the latter, as we grapple with issues such as personal privacy in the digital age, or the right future energy mix.

However, we must exercise caution in ensuring that academic input is solely about providing evidence and advice, and does not stray into the murkier realms of advocacy. I’ve long sought to make a clear distinction between two kinds of questions. The first, which requires a choice to be made, remains the province of politicians and their electors. “How should we respond to climate change?” is an example. The second kind is one where science provides an objective response. “Have humans contributed to climate change?” The answer, based on irrefutable evidence, is yes.

Helping to answer, so far as that is possible, the objective questions that governments and voters raise is the proper domain of scientists in many different guises. As chief scientific adviser to the UK government, I want to bring a broader range of expertise to bear on the workable formulation and implementation of national policy – addressing both the risks and opportunities we face together.

Sir Mark Walport is the UK government’s chief scientific adviser and was formerly director of the Wellcome Trust.

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