INGSA/Koi Tū EXCLUSIVEThe COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark focus the interactions between science, experts, society, policy making, politics and diplomacy. Across the world these interactions have been and will continue to manifest in different strategies and decisions. Both to enhance management of the ongoing evolution of this pandemic and to gain lessons that can be applied in future pandemics and crises, we must understand and learn from these varied experiences. There are both lessons to learn from how we have got to this point, and many issues to consider as we move forward.
There have been quite different responses in different jurisdictions, for example over timing of even minimal containment measures until the severity was apparent to their publics. There has been wide variation in the speed with which foreseeable needed measures, such as building testing capacity, have been developed.
Scientists and public health experts have been pointing out for many years the inevitability of a major pandemic. COVID-19 is but one of a series of zoonotic infections that countries have faced in recent years, but its characteristics make it particularly challenging and threatening. National risk estimates and registers have suggested a high probability that one such zoonotic would lead to a global pandemic in short order. Yet the level of global preparation in recent years has arguably been limited by a failure to appreciate the significance of such warnings.
We might ask why is this the case? Why did the evidence-policy nexus fail? Is it due to overconfidence within policy-communities because SARS was effectively contained? Or because influenza has been perceived as a usually minor disease that can be dealt with by vaccination, despite the fact that it regularly kills the elderly or the infirm? Is it the result of a reaction to messages from scientists indicating uncertain but potentially devastating disease spread that might be seen as unnecessarily alarmist, and the consequent costs that would necessitate? The preparative costs involved might have little public support in the absence of a certainty of impact, making such long-term planning a low priority relative to short-term demands. Even now there remains an array of denial and misinformation that bends the narrative to support political and economic interests. Was the WHO well placed to lead? Were its warnings headed to? Can we reach transnational decisions on how to act?
How much information was shared through formal processes – how much relied both domestically and transnationally on informal processes? Attempts to find technological solutions remain disparate and at times confounded by political and commercial barriers. There are critical learnings here for every country.
And as we hopefully move beyond the acute stage there are many questions to ask. Some of these include:
- Do countries, regionals and the global communities have the right structures for thinking about risk and planning into the medium and long term? Can we get better at horizon scanning and foresighting?
- Have we got the right institutions for linking science, society, and policy?
- What can we learn for the practice of science communication?
- What are the implications for science advice at the global level?
- How important is transparency in policy making?
- What is the role of informal advice in emergencies?
- Are regulatory systems fit for purpose in emergencies?
- Are there sufficient inputs from other disciplines in considering how societies and individuals react in the context of communal crisis?
- Can we see better ways to get transnational cooperation in emergencies and for collective expert advice, beyond the role of virologists and epidemiologists?
- Can we deal better with the engines of misinformation; a problem that transcends borders?
- What are the implications for countries at different states of development and for countries with vulnerable supply lines?
- What will be the long-term changes will the pandemic bring? Will countries seek to be more self-sufficient? What ate the implications for economic planning and management? Does this have broader implications for political economy? Does it have broader implications for democratic decision making and trust in government. Just as the great depression influenced thinking for decades, is this a similar tipping point for public values and policy settings?
Many of these questions lie within INGSA’s ambit. Accordingly today INGSA is launching a ‘landing pad’ (www.ingsa.org/covid/) for COVID 19 associated discussion on issues of the science-policy, science-society and science diplomacy intersections. This will have several elements.
Firstly it will be a curated website for essays relevant to the issues of interaction between science and policy. It will not focus on technical issues associated with the virus. An editorial committee has been established (see website). We plan it also to be a repository of updates from each country on the policy decisions made in relation to the pandemic. Within a few days we will launch a program of podcasts and webinars on these issues. We hope to soon announce a more formal evaluation and a undertake a deeper dive on some of these issues – one that hopefully will engage much of our membership.
Understandably, much focus will remain on the short term. But it would be a terrible mistake if attention is not given now, and progressively, to the long-term matters that this epidemic will throw into sharp focus. For example, while on a very different time course, climate change shows many of the same issues – the conflicts between science, policy, vested interests and politics and a tendency to think that addressing it can wait. Overall there remains a reluctance to sdonsider the big changes that will be needed while many wait for some hoped-for technological solutions.
As advised the scheduled meeting of INGSA in Montreal in September has been delayed until next April. We are working towards a virtual summit on the science-policy and science- diplomacy issues to be held on September 16th - 17th ; the same dates that the conference was originally scheduled for.
We are also collaborating in this effort with several other organisations and we welcome further partnerships. The INGSA network has already assisted several countries in linking to expertise. We will continue to play that networking role.
INGSA and its components including its regional chapters, its science diplomacy division SPIDER and its support of FMSTAN are well-placed to explore these issues which Covid 19 has placed into the sharpest focus. We welcome your engagement, contributions and assistance.