Kat Smith and Paul Cairney
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on the roles that evidence and expertise can play in policy and practice. Understanding the nature of these debates, and developing tools to help decision-makers navigate them, is the focus of the Evidence & Policy community. In this post, we consider how our reflections on the field’s key insights help us understand the role evidence is playing in the UK’s response to the current pandemic:
1. There is no such thing as ‘the evidence’.
Epidemiological data and modelling, behavioural science, reviews of evidence relating to previous pandemics, assessments of social and economic impacts, and more, are all competing for policy attention in developing COVID-19 policy. While all of this evidence is potentially useful, it can lead to competing narratives about what to do which, in turn, result in a sense of confusion, especially when it erupts into open criticism of government policy.
2. It can be strategically useful to present decisions as ‘evidence-based’, but policy is necessarily political and evidence does not tell policymakers what to do.
The UK government claims that policy responses to COVID-19 are ‘led by the science’ but the relevant scientific evidence is diverse and policy decisions are necessarily political. Treat any description of based policy on ‘the science’ as an attempt by policymakers to establish an image of governing competence and project some sense of certainty.
3. Communicating uncertainty is difficult but crucial
COVID-19 is a new virus and much is unknown. For most countries, the social and policy responses are new experiences. This uncertainty is uncomfortable and challenging to communicate, which makes quantified projections about alternative scenarios attractive to policymakers, particularly when they to project a sense of confidence in science-informed choices.
Yet, when uncertain, modellers have to employ assumptions, before new data and evidence prompts key models to be revised, leading to revised projections. Most people are not familiar with this process, prompting considerable media critique when government predictions change. The revision of projections may trigger public concern and declining trust. In contrast, some research suggests that communicating uncertainty does not substantially reduce public trust.
4. Many people and organisations are involved in translating evidence for policy.
Our daily press conference focus is on a small number of scientific advisors to ministers, but the ‘machinery’ of government involves huge numbers of policymakers and advisors behind the scenes. The focus of many civil servants and public sector workers has been transformed in the space of a few months to focus on specific aspects of the pandemic, while the number of external actors claiming relevant expertise appears to be growing on a daily basis. This scale of policymaking illustrates the low likelihood that a small number of policymakers in one ‘centre’ of government can coordinate (or even pay attention to) most activity.
5. Policymaker attention to research evidence can be maximal or minimal.
Some researchers have gone from being largely ignored to being treated as essential sources of information and advice, even though scientific knowledge of COVID-19 is relatively limited. The status of ‘experts’ has also been reinvigorated, to the delight of some. Yet, there are risks involved in offering expert advice to governments and some have queried ‘whether ‘the experts’ quite understand the politics of the role they have been cast’.
While we connect the early UK experience to general insights on evidence and policy, these processes are likely to play out in very different ways in each country. As such, we welcome further contributions that summarise other country-level developments.
Kat and Paul are the current Co-Editors in Chief of Evidence & Policy. Kat Smith is a Professor of Public Health Policy at the University of Strathclyde and Paul is a Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling.
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