Where science meets politics: policymaking in the pandemic

By on 31/03/2021
Sir Patrick Vallance the UK’s chief scientific adviser. Experts say a lot has been learned this year on how governments and scientists can collaborate. Credit: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr

As the COVID-19 pandemic ripped across the world, it lent new urgency to an old question: how can governments improve how they solicit and act on scientific advice?

A panel of experts, which included government scientific advisers, outlined the lessons learned from the last year regarding how policymakers and science collaborate at an online event yesterday hosted by the University of Cambridge.

The advice included: improving discussions about uncertainty, boosting the scientific advice directly available at the local level, and bringing the scientific method into the process of policymaking itself.

This is not just something the UK government is grappling with. On Monday, the administration of US president Joe Biden launched a wide-ranging review of evidence-based policymaking and political interference in science.

Using scientific methods to develop policy

One outcome of the co-operation between scientists and policymakers during the pandemic should be the latter learning from the former, said government adviser David Halpern, who is also chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, a company that provides information to support policymaking and improve public services.

“Some of the great successes over the last year, are not the things which we knew before but the things which we didn’t, which were then figured out,” he said, citing rapid drugs trials as one example.

“[In] a place like Cambridge, when you teach students [in the sciences], it’s not that they will use that very particular knowledge. The most valuable thing they’re generally taking with them is a method… to figure out what you don’t know, and how you find the answer.”

If such methods could be incorporated into policy, “that would be a very, very big deal,” Halpern said. For example, communicating coronavirus advice could be done scientifically by running large-scale trials to test different messages and establish which works, he suggested.

Throughout the pandemic SAGE, the UK government’s scientific advisory committee, has also improved how it expresses “level[s] of uncertainty” in its advice, Halpern said. This was, he said, a positive step.

He pointed to the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) as an example of good practice. The EEF, he said, provides estimates not only of the effectiveness and costs of policy interventions, but also of its confidence in its judgement of that effectiveness.

Meanwhile, Daniela De Angelis, professor of statistical science for health at the University of Cambridge, has been providing “now casts” and “forecasts” – both current and future assessments – of the pandemic through SPI-M (the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Advisory Committee), which advises the UK government through SAGE.

De Angelis said she had felt “perplexed” and “very anxious” in early 2020 and again in September last year, when “perhaps decisions should have been made a bit earlier” based on the evidence being presented to the government about the danger to Britain’s health service.

Think local for the next challenge

But the experience meant “people have learned an awful lot”, she noted. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, had visited SPI-M and praised their work, De Angelis added. Vallance had suggested, she said, that “this kind of process” could be used for other kinds of emergencies.

Indeed, it is important for governments to set up systems for soliciting advice on any future challenges, said Claire Craig, provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, and a scientist who has advised government in various capacities.

“We must be ready for the next thing to be different,” Craig said, “so it’s about building systems that could cope with an unexpected thing, rather than, as it were, the next Covid but better.”

The British Academy argued in a report this year that the government should support the development of “locally grounded scientific advisory networks and/or analytical capacities in the form of local observatories that bring together local expertise in universities, civil society groups, local government and businesses.”

Craig said she supported the proposal “that we should also think about science advice at the local level, and how universities and cities can work together.”

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