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Covid-19: However good the science, you need good politics too

Two months ago, when the now daily routine of a government minister being flanked by two scientists at the 5pm press conference was a novelty, there was much talk of the resurgence of respect for science and evidence. Policy was “following the science”; decisions would only be taken “on the basis of a rigorous analysis of the evidence.”

For once, we seemed not to have had enough of experts. After several years of public debate in which evidence was elided with opinion, and where any claim was assumed to have been constructed to support a prior opinion (you only say that because you are a leaver/remainer/Blairite/Corbynite…) rather than built on evidence, this was a welcome development.

Some weeks on it is harder to be sanguine that Covid-19 will result in a permanent reset in the relationship between science and policy.

Why is this? And what might be done about it?

Covid-19 illustrates both the importance of good science in determining good policy, and its limitations. There is a risk to ‘science’ when it is used as sole authority for decisions, and when scientific judgement is set in opposition to political judgement. While good policy is driven by good evidence, good evidence isn’t a guarantee of good policy.

In March, most people would have been reassured by the assertion that ‘science’ was guiding decision-making. Scientists deal in certainty and proof, not opinion and fingers in the air. So what better time to take the politics out of decision-making and to do what the boffins tell us?

"There is a risk to ‘science’ when it is used as sole authority for decisions, and when scientific judgement is set in opposition to political judgement."
Stephen Meek

However, people were soon asking why, if everyone is following the science, are different countries doing different things?

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked recently whether “the UK science [is] different to the rest of world” in requiring only seven days’ isolation for those exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms, while World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance recommends a fortnight. Similar concerns emerged when the government’s strategy changed dramatically from hand-washing to lockdown and social distancing. Did this mean the science changed overnight? Surely the science is the science?

These are perfectly reasonable questions to ask if the way science has been presented to you is as a certain guide, rather than as something empirical, evolving, and subject to challenge.

The issue with Covid-19 is not that the science is unusually uncertain, but that it is being developed in the public eye and at speed, with theories tested in real time and with direct effect on people’s lives. The danger is that when science is presented as a security blanket to protect against the terrifying uncertainty of a global pandemic, people will feel let down when the reality is different, and conclude that science is no more reliable an authority than anything else.

"As journalist Marina Hyde brilliantly described it, politicians look to scientists to give themselves “nerd immunity.”"

So we need to be careful about how we describe the role of science, and of politicians and politics, in shaping the response.

This duty of care applies to politicians as well as advocates for science in policy. Policymakers habitually make recourse to ‘the science’ as an authority above politics to justify a difficult course of action. Reports commissioned from eminent professors, however nuanced their analysis of a complex evidence base, are soon deployed as holy writ to close down debate. As journalist Marina Hyde brilliantly described it, politicians look to scientists to give themselves “nerd immunity”.

Advocates for science need to be careful too. Science-driven, evidence-based policymaking has often been presented as a simpler, more reliable alternative to decisions shaped by messy, corrupting, political considerations. Clutching our pearls when we see politicians taking an interest in or challenging the deliberations of scientists rather than simply accepting their recommendations without question reinforces this false opposition.  

However good the science, it won’t tackle a pandemic alone – you need good politics too.

Policy decisions are inherently complex and require a huge number of factors to be synthesized into a course of action. With COVID-19 this might be the science of containing the virus with the long-term health, social and economic consequences of an extended lockdown, and judgements on the extent to which the public will tolerate restrictions. These aren’t questions that have a definite answer. They can be informed, but not determined, by science.

"If we want to make the case for a bigger role for science in policy then we must be clear both about what it can contribute, and its limits."

Further, policy decisions are a wager on the future.  It is rare that the evidence base is ever complete and conclusive, and that certainly isn’t the case now. Of course ‘more research is needed’, but life and death decisions need to be taken today, and they will inevitably be provisional judgements on the basis of an incomplete picture. The stronger the evidence, the better the picture, but the decision will still involve political judgement balancing multiple objectives and maintaining public consent.

Pretending that these decisions can be taken out of the realm of politics and simply driven by ‘the science’ is a disservice to politics, by implying it can’t be trusted at moments of crisis, and to science, by giving it an authority that it can’t live up to.

So it is legitimate to ask whether the government is making good decisions given the evidence available to it. But the fact that it isn’t doing the same thing as other governments isn’t of itself evidence that it is ignoring scientific advice. Confidence in both politics and science would be much better served by acknowledging this, rather than hiding behind the increasingly threadbare rhetoric of ‘we are following the science’.

If we want to make the case for a bigger role for science in policy then we must be clear both about what it can contribute, and its limits. If we don’t, we risk ‘science’ becoming the fall guy for shortcomings in the policy response. The op-ed would write itself: “The politicians followed the science – it wasn’t their fault the boffins were wrong.”

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Stephen Meek

Stephen Meek is Director of the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Policy and Engagement.

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