Seven Questions for Studying Science, Knowledge and Policy in a Covid-19 World

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Marc Geddes, Justyna Bandola-Gill, and Steve Yearley 

Covid-19 has spread across the globe, upturning our personal lives and uprooting our routines; and led to significant health problems including, sadly, deaths. Across the globe, people have been forced into lockdown to prevent physical contact with others. Covid-19 has already, or is going to, impact all areas of our lives. It will challenge us in many as-yet unforeseen ways.

From the beginning of this crisis, we have witnessed a growing importance of the questions of the role of science, knowledge and expertise in politics and society. As the SKAPE community we have been exploring these themes from multiple perspectives for nearly a decade and during this challenging time, we would like to open up a discussion on potential impacts of COVID-19 on this field and offer a space for scholars working in different disciplines to engage in a debate. In this blog, we identify seven questions that emerge in this new reality and explain them in the UK context – though we are aware that our themes are not comprehensive nor that the UK is alone in this pandemic.

First, what does Covid-19 reveal about the relationship between experts and political decision-making? Covid-19 has renewed many questions that have long been studied about how scientists and experts interact with policy-makers. For example, we may raise questions about the role, transparency and independence of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), or the role of different institutional players in the wider network of scientific advice (e.g. Government Office for Science, Chief Medical Officer, etc.). Does Covid-19 confirm our previous scholarship on the role of evidence, or do we need to re-think it? One key issue here is the novel character of the virus and illness; how are scientific judgements made about responses to an infection which is not yet understood in detail?

Second, and closely related to the above, how are questions around how scientific advice and forms of expertise communicated? It has now become a familiar sight to see a government minister flanked by two scientific advisers at the Number 10 Press Briefing at 5pm each day. Politicians are keen to emphasise that they are following ‘The Science’. But how well has scientific advice been explained? What impact do different formats have on the public psyche? What is the role of identifying targets? And how well is the public receiving and interpreting scientific advice?

Third, who are our scientific advisers and from where does their expertise come? We ask this question to highlight the types of experts we see in public, the forms of expertise that are seen as authoritative and the impact of diversity on policy-making. For example, some have criticised the small number of social scientists on key advisory committees, whose knowledge and understanding of human behaviour to identify policy proposals post-lockdown are seen as crucial, while others believe that engineers and transport experts are missing.

Fourth, what is the global nature of this pandemic? We are keenly aware that the World Health Organisation plays a key role in identifying global challenges, yet policy responses to Covid-19 have been largely set by national (and devolved) governments across the world. This is rather different to other recent crises, such as the global financial crisis where world leaders were able to meet and discuss support packages. While the EU has recently agreed financial support for the looming economic consequences of Covid-19, what other lessons can we learn about the global nature of this pandemic? Will we see a reversal of globalising forces, as some have predicted?

Fifth, what is the impact of Covid-19 on different communities and social groups? We need to be aware of the emerging concerns that Covid-19 will have unequal impacts across society, and ask how these could be mitigated. We already know that caring responsibilities disproportionately affect women and, with the closure of nurseries and schools, this inequality may have been exacerbated by Coronavirus. We also know that many ‘key workers’ who have been essential in keeping our lives running for the past few weeks come from low-income backgrounds and therefore are likely to be more exposed to the virus. More recently, a survey has suggested that wealthier families are able to educate their children more than those from poorer backgrounds. Covid-19 is likely to also have a disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities. And finally, what of the digital divide?

Sixth, turning our minds to universities, what are the likely implications of Covid-19 for the study of evidence and policy? Across academic circles, many have reported that journal submissions has declined from certain groups, notably women. Opportunities for early-career academics have been frozen and we are at a difficult moment where the next generation of scholars could be pushed out and away from academia. What is the precise nature of the challenges that Covid-19 poses for us as scholars, and how can they be addressed equitably?

Seventh, and finally, what are the opportunities that Covid-19 may bring? The above themes have largely focused around problems and challenges, but we need to be aware that Covid-19 may also bring some changes that are beneficial. We have seen, for example, the arts opening up spaces for digital exhibitions or making plays and concerts more readily available. Elsewhere, many people – though facing the challenge of childcare and home-schooling – are able to spend more time with their loved ones. Others have re-imagined their working or personal lives, becoming aware of the joys of working from home or finding treasures in their local communities. It is also possible that people may have learned to live with less business travel (firms’ accountants may turn out to be keen on the savings from not-travelling), while many people may decide to restrict their commuting if employers allow. The environmental consequences of these changes should not be exaggerated, but they are likely to be positive.

We are sure that the themes that we have identified are not exhaustive – not having focused on, for example, changing practices of political organisation (e.g. virtual parliaments) or policy areas that are affected by Covid-19 (such as the environment or education). We believe this blog should serve as a starting point for a wider discussion: on what should researchers on Covid-19 focus? What contribution can existing research bring to debates about Covid-19? Understanding and answering these questions requires engagement across a range of scholars across the arts, humanities, and social sciences, as well as the natural sciences. SKAPE is one space where inter-disciplinary perspectives may come together and discuss this, with a membership across many disciplines.

The first step towards this goal was to hold an open discussion among our members on the 27th of May. During the discussion, we identified two main themes for our future explorations on knowledge and policy during the COVID-19 crisis.

The first theme was of the key importance of the politics of knowledge production and expertise. The UK government time and again declares it follows The Science; however, it is not clear what such a declaration means in practice.  What counts as The Science – what disciplines and institutions are seen as credible and authoritative, how is data produced and translated into models and consequently – policy advice, how research, its uncertainties and ambiguities are communicated to the public? What emerges in this context is not lack of evidence but rather a multiplicity of different pools of evidence. Consequently, there is a need for a different form of scientific advice – focused not only on producing knowledge but also mediating and coordinating it.

The second theme discussed by the SKAPE members was the role of comparisons and analogies in decision-making. The boundaries between the global problem of the pandemic and the local solutions implemented by national governments are becoming increasingly blurred. Comparison across countries emerges as the central mode of both knowing and addressing the crisis. Consequently, we witness a powerful role of data visualisations as both performing ‘the global’ of the pandemic and evaluating governments’ performance. The question of what analogy to use in public decision-making (e.g. comparison to other countries or other crisis – is it like flu? Is it like the AIDS epidemic?) is in itself a political decision and a matter of science advice. In relation to the idea of the performance of data, SKAPE members raised how the introduction of metrics act to re-shape people’s actions and objectives, while also pointing out the limitations data comparison (e.g. comparing the UK to other countries despite different methods of recording the spread of Covid-19).

We want to provide the space for scholars to answer these questions, and welcome you to join us: follow us on Twitter, where we will be sharing insights and research around these topics (and the role of knowledge in policy more broadly); write for our blog – we are always looking for new contributors (get in touch); and/or join our discussions at virtual seminars that we have organised:

  • 27 May, 11.30am-12.30pm: Open discussion based on this blog around issues studying science, knowledge and policy during Covid-19
  • 24 June, 11.30am-12.30pm: Kat Smith, Sudeepa Abeysinghe and Christina Boswell offering reflections on the impact of Covid-19 from their area of expertise: the summary of the seminar is now on the SKAPE blogpage
  • 15 July, 4pm-5pm: Alison Cohen offering reflections on community-based participatory research during Covid-19, based on current work-in-progress

We look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge, and to have debates and discussions, in the months and years that lie ahead!

This blog was amended following a SKAPE seminar discussion on the 27th of May where key issues were discussed; with thanks to Justyna Bandola-Gill for collating input and leading on this updated blog

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics and Co-Director of SKAPE, University of Edinburgh. He has recently published a book on how MPs and officials interpret ‘scrutiny’ and ‘evidence’ in the UK Parliament. Follow Marc on Twitter: @marcgeddes.

 Professor Steve Yearley is the Professor of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge and also Director of IASH, Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

 Dr Justyna Bandola-Gill is a Research Fellow in Social Policy and Deputy Director of SKAPE. Her recent publications include a book on the controversies, challenges and consequences of the ‘Impact Agenda. You can follow her on Twitter @justynabandola.

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