If COVID-19 is the 9/11 moment for global science advice, what needs to happen next?

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Prof Rémi Quirion 

Chief Scientist of Quebec;
President of INGSA


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Sir Peter Gluckman

President, International Science Council (ISC);
Founding Chair of INGSA


This Op-Ed was originally published in a number of daily South African newspapers, during Science Forum South Africa

As a leader in pan-African policy innovation, South Africa gets the importance of scientific evidence to support laws meeting the nation and its citizens’ needs. We, and the tens of thousands of members we represent, are also strong believers in the value of independent science advice in complex decision making. There are, of course, issues where scientific evidence and public or political values do not align. For those who believe wholeheartedly in evidence and the integrity of science, the past two-years have been challenging. Information, correct and incorrect, can spread like a virus. People’s worldviews are too-often reinforced by the information bubbles they now live in, which means that many only listen to people and media whose views align with their own inherent biases and ideologies. People want categorical answers. Science can rarely provide them. We are certainly at a turning point, not just in this pandemic, but in our collective management of longer-term challenges affecting us all.

That is why our international discussion held at the 7th Science Forum South Africa (www.sfsa.co.za/) on Thursday, 2nd December was so timely. Expertly moderated by Professor Himla Soodyall, CEO of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), this panel brought together politicians, chief science advisors, presidents of science advisory bodies and science diplomats from five countries and five continents to examine how scientific advice feeds into effective policymaking, or not!

Our premise is that if the 9/11 attacks changed all our lives from the perspective of state security, then Covid-19 must leave a similar legacy for the future of globally robust policymaking as a shared public good. Or must we be prepared to accept the dumbing-down of ‘evidence’ and a ‘snapback to normal’ in our post-pandemic politics?

Allow us to summarise a few of the key conclusions reached. We argue that the importance of open science and access to data has never been more critical. What is really at stake in the relationship between science and policymaking, both during crises and within our daily lives, is much more than a philosophical debate. From the air we breathe, the food we eat and the cars we drive, to the medical treatments or vaccines we take, and the education we provide to children, this relationship, and the decisions it can influence, matter immensely.

Science and politics share common features. Both operate at the boundaries of knowledge and uncertainty, but approach problems differently. Scientists question and challenge our assumptions, searching for empiric evidence to determine the best options. In contrast, politicians are guided by the (short-term) needs or demands of voters and by ideology. When this necessitates ‘not needing experts’ or ‘we are following expert advice’ mantras, the lines become blurred. This pandemic has brought to the fore a third force. What is changing is that most grass-roots citizens are no longer ill-informed and passive bystanders. They want to have their voices heard and are rightfully demanding greater transparency and accountability. This brings the complex contradictions between evidence and ideology into sharp focus.

Rapid scientific advances in managing the pandemic are generating enormous public interest in evidence-based decision making. Practically every country has a new, much followed advisory body. Many scientists have become public celebrities too. That said, does this carrier-wave for citizen engagement with science and the tremendous opportunities to advance the status of science and research funding (ZAR trillions being poured in), not risk being derailed by the real threat of science and scientists being viewed as a political force? What does the playbook of science advisory systems teach us?

As speakers representing diverse continental views from Canada, Estonia, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa, we examined the pandemic’s legacy as not just a disease, but as an exemplifier of humanity’s inhumanities and interdependences. From vaccine equity and the starkly highlighted fault-lines between rich and poor countries, the strength of international cooperation continues to be tested.

What is, however, clear is that societies worldwide both profess intolerance for ‘inequality’, while providing and even sometimes cherishing the legal and social settings that legitimatises it. From last year’s blanket ban on alcohol and tobacco sales during lockdown in South Africa, to today’s anti-vaccination riots across Europe or North America, thorny questions around civil liberties, taxation, jobs, sectoral interests and culture all come into play.

Looking forward, we also endeavoured to map-out what reformed or new regional or global facilities and institutions might be needed, where and why? Should we defenders and loyal gatekeepers of the scientific status-quo put our hands up and lead the charge to ‘out’ the most gross failures in our global advisory systems? Yes. Is the World Health Organisation up for root and branch reform? Yes. Utterly transformed by digital technologies and artificial intelligence, is the world of work and the ‘profession’ of evidence-based policymaking itself in the riflescope? Yes.

South Africa must embrace its reputation-rise

We have all shared multiple platforms with South African leaders and intellectuals. South African scientists are in demand too. Dr Shamila Nair-Bedouelle’s senior appointment at UNESCO in Paris; Dr Albert S. van Jaarsveld’s appointment at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna and Prof. Salim Abdool Karim’s role as Vice President of the recently created International Science Council are just three of many examples. Cape Town’s hosting of World Science Forum 2022 and other international recognitions showcase how South Africa’s scientific reputation is on the rise.

That said, the voice of African scientists is not nearly heard enough by policymakers inside Africa, as in most places in the world. South Africa is a big tree under which many others look for shade. We encourage you wholeheartedly to help redress this imbalance, as we too pledge to do our bit inside our own organisations.

Our collective aim at this year’s Science Forum South Africa was to contribute to the debate about how lawmakers must navigate between the rights and responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves and the rights and responsibilities of states to look after their citizens, provide security and a milieu in which to live a satisfying life. Further issues accentuated by the pandemic we would flag to readers include concepts of democracy and the rule of law, the influence of religious views and the pressing need for the acceptance of global public goods to be universally applied.  

Together, we must join forces to help build and elevate open and ongoing public and policy dialogue about the role of robust evidence in sound policy making. South Africa has understood and is embracing this too. The parallel reputation-rise of South African science has been impressive to see. 56 million South Africans and 1.2 billion pan-Africans have a stake in this continuing. That said, the scientific communities of Africa must stand behind their evidence and shout up when policy-makers clearly get it wrong.