COVID-19 has laid bare some of the pitfalls of the relationship between scientific experts and policymakers—but some researchers say there are ways to make it better.
Sep 1, 2020
Science has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, as SARS-CoV-2 started spreading around the globe, many researchers pivoted to focus on studying the virus. At the same time, some scientists and science advisors—experts responsible for providing scientific information to policymakers—gained celebrity status as they calmly and cautiously updated the public on the rapidly evolving situation and lent their expertise to help governments make critical decisions, such as those relating to lockdowns and other transmission-slowing measures.
“Academia, in the case of COVID, has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible,” says Chris Tyler, the director of research and policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP).
But the pace at which COVID-related science has been conducted and disseminated during the pandemic has also revealed the challenges associated with translating fast-accumulating evidence for an audience not well versed in the process of science. As research findings are speedily posted to preprint servers, preliminary results have made headlines in major news outlets, sometimes without the appropriate dose of scrutiny.
Some politicians, such as Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have been quick to jump on premature findings, publicly touting the benefits of treatments such as hydroxychloroquine with minimal or no supporting evidence. Others have pointed to the flip-flopping of the current state of knowledge as a sign of scientists’ untrustworthiness or incompetence—as was seen, for example, in the backlash against Anthony Fauci, one of the US government’s top science advisors.
Some comments from world leaders have been even more concerning. “For me, the most shocking thing I saw,” Tyler says, “was Donald Trump suggesting the injection of disinfectant as a way of treating COVID—that was an eye-popping, mind-boggling moment.”
Still, Tyler notes that there are many countries in which the relationship between the scientific community and policymakers during the course of the pandemic has been “pretty impressive.” As an example, he points to Germany, where the government has both enlisted and heeded the advice of scientists across a range of disciplines, including epidemiology, virology, economics, public health, and the humanities.
Researchers will likely be assessing the response to the pandemic for years to come. In the meantime, for scientists interested in getting involved in policymaking, there are lessons to be learned, as well some preliminary insights from the pandemic that may help to improve interactions between scientists and policymakers and thereby pave the way to better evidence-based policy.
Cultural divisions between scientists and policymakers
Even in the absence of a public-health emergency, there are several obstacles to the smooth implementation of scientific advice into policy. One is simply that scientists and policymakers are generally beholden to different incentive systems. “Classically, a scientist wants to understand something for the sake of understanding, because they have a passion toward that topic—so discovery is driven by the value of discovery,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Whereas the policymaker has a much more utilitarian approach. . . . They have to come up with interventions that produce the best outcomes for the most people.”
Scientists and policymakers are operating on considerably different timescales, too. “Normally, research programs take months and years, whereas policy decisions take weeks and months, sometimes days,” Tyler says. “This discrepancy makes it much more difficult to get scientifically generated knowledge into the policymaking process.” Tyler adds that the two groups deal with uncertainty in very different ways: academics are comfortable with it, as measuring uncertainty is part of the scientific process, whereas policymakers tend to view it as something that can cloud what a “right” answer might be.
This cultural mismatch has been particularly pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even as scientists work at breakneck speeds, many crucial questions about COVID-19—such as how long immunity to the virus lasts, and how much of a role children play in the spread of infection—remain unresolved, and policy decisions have had to be addressed with limited evidence, with advice changing as new research emerges.
“We have seen the messy side of science, [that] not all studies are equally well-done and that they build over time to contribute to the weight of knowledge,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University. “The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions.”
Academia has done an amazing job of trying to get as much information relevant to COVID gathered and distributed into the policymaking process as possible. —Chris Tyler, University College London
Widespread mask use, for example, was initially discouraged by many politicians and public health officials due to concerns about a shortage of supplies for healthcare workers and limited data on whether mask use by the general public would help reduce the spread of the virus. At the time, there were few mask-wearing laws outside of East Asia, where such practices were commonplace long before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Gradually, however, as studies began to provide evidence to support the use of face coverings as a means of stemming transmission, scientists and public health officials started to recommend their use. This shift led local, state, and federal officials around the world to implement mandatory mask-wearing rules in certain public spaces. Some politicians, however, used this about-face in advice as a reason to criticize health experts.
“We’re dealing with evidence that is changing very rapidly,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “I think there’s a risk of people perceiving that rapid evolution as science [being] a bad process, which is worrisome.” On the other hand, the spotlight the pandemic has put on scientists provides opportunities to educate the general public and policymakers about the scientific process, Azad adds. It’s important to help them understand that “it’s good that things are changing, because it means we’re paying attention to the new evidence as it comes out.”
Bringing science and policy closer together
Despite these challenges, science and policy experts say that there are both short- and long-term ways to improve the relationship between the two communities and to help policymakers arrive at decisions that are more evidence-based.
Better tools, for one, could help close the gap. Earlier this year, Ruggeri brought together a group of people from a range of disciplines, including medicine, engineering, economics, and policy, to develop the Theoretical, Empirical, Applicable, Replicable, Impact (THEARI) rating system, a five-tiered framework for evaluating the robustness of scientific evidence in the context of policy decisions. The ratings range from “theoretical” (the lowest level, where a scientifically viable idea has been proposed but not tested) to “impact” (the highest level, in which a concept has been successfully tested, replicated, applied, and validated in the real world).
The team developed THEARI partly to establish a “common language” across scientific disciplines, which Ruggeri says would be particularly useful to policymakers evaluating evidence from a field they may know little about. Ruggeri hopes to see the THEARI framework—or something like it—adopted by policymakers and policy advisors, and even by journals and preprint servers. “I don’t necessarily think [THEARI] will be used right away,” he says. “It’d be great if it was, but we . . . [developed] it as kind of a starting point.”
Other approaches to improve the communication between scientists and policymakers may require more resources and time. According to Akerlof, one method could include providing better incentives for both parties to engage with each other—by offering increased funding for academics who take part in this kind of activity, for instance—and boosting opportunities for such interactions to happen.
Akerlof points to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, which place scientists and engineers in various branches of the US government for a year, as an example of a way in which important ties between the two communities could be forged. “Many of those scientists either stay in government or continue to work in science policy in other organizations,” Akerlof says. “By understanding the language and culture of both the scientific and policy communities, they are able to bridge between them.”
In Canada, such a program was established in 2018, when the Canadian Science Policy Center and Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, held the country’s first “Science Meets Parliament” event. The 28 scientists in attendance, including Azad, spent two days learning about effective communication and the policymaking process, and interacting with senators and members of parliament. “It was eye opening for me because I didn’t know how parliamentarians really live and work,” Azad says. “We hope it’ll grow and involve more scientists and continue on an annual basis . . . and also happen at the provincial level.”
The short timeframes needed for COVID-19 decisions have run straight into the much longer timeframes needed for robust scientific conclusions. —Karen Akerlof, George Mason University
There may also be insights from scientist-policymaker exchanges in other domains that experts can apply to the current pandemic. Maria Carmen Lemos, a social scientist focused on climate policy at the University of Michigan, says that one way to make those interactions more productive is by closing something she calls the “usability gap.”
“The usability gap highlights the fact that one of the reasons that research fails to connect is because [scientists] only pay attention to the [science],” Lemos explains. “We are putting everything out there in papers, in policy briefs, in reports, but rarely do we actually systematically and intentionally try to understand who is on the other side” receiving this information, and what they will do with it.
The way to deal with this usability gap, according to Lemos, is for more scientists to consult the people who actually make, influence, and implement policy changes early on in the scientific process. Lemos and her team, for example, have engaged in this way with city officials, farmers, forest managers, tribal leaders, and others whose decision making would directly benefit from their work. “We help with organization and funding, and we also work with them very closely to produce climate information that is tailored for them, for the problems that they are trying to solve,” she adds.
Azad applied this kind of approach in a study that involves assessing the effects of the pandemic on a cohort of children that her team has been following from infancy, starting in 2010. When she and her colleagues were putting together the proposal for the COVID-19 project this year, they reached out to public health decision makers across the Canadian provinces to find out what information would be most useful. “We have made sure to embed those decision makers in the project from the very beginning to ensure we’re asking the right questions, getting the most useful information, and getting it back to them in a very quick turnaround manner,” Azad says.
There will also likely be lessons to take away from the pandemic in the years to come, notes Noam Obermeister, a PhD student studying science policy at the University of Cambridge. These include insights from scientific advisors about how providing guidance to policymakers during COVID-19 compared to pre-pandemic times, and how scientists’ prominent role during the pandemic has affected how they are viewed by the public; efforts to collect this sort of information are already underway.
“I don’t think scientists anticipated that much power and visibility, or that [they] would be in [public] saying science is complicated and uncertain,” Obermeister says. “I think what that does to the authority of science in the public eye is still to be determined.”
|Talking Science to PolicymakersFor academics who have never engaged with policymakers, the thought of making contact may be daunting. Researchers with experience of these interactions share their tips for success.|
1. Do your homework. Policymakers usually have many different people vying for their time and attention. When you get a meeting, make sure you make the most of it. “Find out which issues related to your research are a priority for the policymaker and which decisions are on the horizon,” says Karen Akerlof, a professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University.
2. Get to the point, but don’t oversimplify. “I find policymakers tend to know a lot about the topics they work on, and when they don’t, they know what to ask about,” says Kai Ruggeri, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University. “Finding a good balance in the communication goes a long way.”
3. Keep in mind that policymakers’ expertise differs from that of scientists. “Park your ego at the door and treat policymakers and their staff with respect,” Akerlof says. “Recognize that the skills, knowledge, and culture that translate to success in policy may seem very different than those in academia.”
4. Be persistent. “Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a response immediately, or if promising communications don’t pan out,” says Meghan Azad, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Manitoba. “Policymakers are busy and their attention shifts rapidly. Meetings get cancelled. It’s not personal. Keep trying.”
5. Remember that not all policymakers are politicians, and vice versa. Politicians are usually elected and are affiliated with a political party, and they may not always be directly involved in creating new policies. This is not the case for the vast majority of policymakers—most are career civil servants whose decisions impact the daily living of constituents, Ruggeri explains.