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Build a science advice system fit for global crises

Image: Bob Bob [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

Coronavirus has revealed both the importance and limitations of current approaches, says Peter Gluckman

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the complex interface between scientific evidence, experts, public institutions, the public, policymakers, diplomats and politicians. It has exposed very different responses in different jurisdictions and demonstrates the challenges of decision-making when the evidence is incomplete but decisions are urgent. Policymakers face competing advice from formal advisory mechanisms, academics, the media and others.

In all of this, the need for transdisciplinarity is apparent. Epidemiologists and virologists do not have all the answers—social and other sciences are also needed. The amount of time that has been spent debating the merits of particular predictive models may have made them less effective at highlighting the core issues for planners. And all such models are confounded by the need to consider the human responses to calls for quarantine and social distancing, and by the specifics of local context.

Every country faces its own particular and growing practical challenges around, for example, issues of supply lines for medical equipment are growing. Policy responses have often shown an overlay of domestic politics. Deliberate misinformation, often related to these politics, has confounded matters.

In our interconnected and noisy world, can a global body such as the World Health Organization cut through, or does it have structural weaknesses that limit its effectiveness? Even if it can, the urgent reality of prioritising healthcare decisions and resources is raising its own set of ethical and other local issues that will play out differently in different countries and across different cultures.

Clearly there will be new lessons to learn and new problems to face as we move through the crisis, but we must also understand how we got here. Covid-19 is but one of a series of zoonotic infections, which cross from other species into humans, that countries have faced in recent years, albeit one with characteristics that make it particularly challenging.

Unheeded warnings

For years, scientists and public-health experts have pointed out the inevitability of a pandemic. Where national risk estimates and registers exist, they have long suggested the high probability of zoonotic pandemic. Yet here we are.

Why do risk registers and analyses not get traction in policy decisions? Why do governments give lower priority to investing in long-term risk reduction than the probability and impact assessments indicate that they should? Is this a failure of global leadership and persuasion?

The 2011 Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown led the United Nations to create the 2015 Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction. This proved a missed opportunity to point out both the likelihood and the severity of biological disasters.

Does the WHO have the right tools? Do we need a more coherent mode of scientific input to policy at the global level?

As we move beyond the acute stage of the outbreak, what long-term changes will the pandemic bring? Will the global community become more cohesive or less so? What will be the implications for open economies?

Will the post-pandemic experience have broader implications for political decision-making and trust in governments? Just as the great depression of the 1920s and 30s influenced political and public thinking for decades, is this a similar tipping point for public values and policy settings?

The International Network for Government Science Advice is uniquely placed to leverage its global connections to examine the unfolding situation from the perspective of science advice. We have already helped a number of governments find expertise and technologies.

With INGSA’s fourth biennial conference postponed from September 2020 to April 2021, we have turned our attention to launching an online hub of global expert views. This includes a near-real-time tracker mapping how policies are evolving in different countries and the role of evidence in this evolution. We plan to explore the lessons learned in webinars.

INGSA has also launched a transdisciplinary and comparative research project on policy-making and the use of evidence across different countries and contexts during this crisis. All of this will lead to a virtual conference on science advice and Covid-19 to be held on 16-17 September—the dates of the originally scheduled meeting.

Covid-19 is arguably the biggest challenge for evidence-informed policymaking the world has faced in living memory. It has brought the value of a global network focused on science advice into much sharper focus.

The lessons learned have broader implications for disaster risk and reduction. The parallels to the climate crisis, with its complex interface between evidence, experts, publics, policy and politics, are obvious. We must use this opportunity wisely.

Peter Gluckman is chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice and president-elect of the International Science Council

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe