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Researchers warned not be be ‘naive’ about policymaking

Expert panel calls for policy training to improve science advice during crises such as Covid-19

Researchers often do not understand the complexity of policymaking and need training to equip them to deliver better science advice to governments, according to a panel of leading science policy experts.

Peter Gluckman, a former chief scientific adviser in New Zealand who now chairs the International Network of Government Science Advice, told a meeting on 23 February that “scientists often have a very naive view of the actual process”.

The common assumption that policymaking is “a simple, linear process” has to be overcome, he told the Commonwealth Science Conference, co-hosted by the UK’s Royal Society and the African Academy of Sciences. The only way to give politicians the best advice possible “is to make sure that you do have an understanding of how the policy process works”, said Gluckman, who was speaking as part of a session exploring the lessons learned about the interaction between science and policy during Covid-19.

In the UK, where science advice to the government has a long pedigree, chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said that a positive outcome of the crisis was that a large number of scientists had come forward to work with the government. “We’ve got a whole generation of people who have never thought about their work being relevant science…being able to step out of their specialist science role into an advisory role in government,” he said.

Building such links is vital to good advice, the meeting heard.

Vernon Lee, deputy director for communicable diseases in Singapore’s Ministry of Health, said that the experience of living through multiple epidemics in Singapore “allows familiarity with policy between policymakers and scientists”.

But he added that in order to foster individuals who could influence politicians and the public “as part of our collective training, we will need scientists to be exposed or trained in some form of policymaking”.

Even countries such as the UK and Singapore that have well-established mechanisms for advice may need to rethink their approaches due to the scale and challenge of Covid-19, according to the panel.

“We never expected an emergency to last a year,” said Vallance. “I think we need to look at our systems going forward to see if they are fit for long-term problems”.

The length of the pandemic has already changed systems in the UK, with increased transparency around the advice given to policymakers. Vallance said this had been a “big advantage” in terms of public accountability. But he said a potential negative impact was that “the total transparency of the system does make some policy professionals reluctant to ask for the science advice if they think it’s all going to become public”.