Jan 14, 2021 - Science

Pandemic science advice comes under scrutiny

Illustration of a gavel under a microscope.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The pandemic is a high-stakes, real-time test of how science informs policy, and the first assessments of how decision-makers have tapped scientists for guidance are now emerging.

Why it matters: How democracies use scientific expertise is — and will be — a key question as countries navigate increasingly complex challenges like future pandemics, climate change, AI and whatever else the 21st century throws at us.

Driving the news: The U.K.’s House of Commons last week released a report about how the government "has obtained and made use of scientific advice during the pandemic."

  • The U.K. government crafted pandemic response measures with scientific advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), a mechanism set up in 2009 for bringing independent experts together to provide scientific and technical advice to policymakers during emergencies.
  • But outside of SAGE, advice from experts in social sciences, economics and other fields was also considered. The assessment of this input was "less visible" and its "role in decision-making opaque," the report concluded, emphasizing the need for transparency about who is providing the advice, the evidence they use and the uncertainties surrounding it.

The report points to the need for advisory groups to include a broad range of expertise that goes beyond science, says Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is evaluating science advice in the pandemic.

  • "Science advice is often narrowed extremely," says Jessica Weinkle, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington who is studying the interface of science and policy in the state's pandemic response.
  • "Not only does that create embedded problems for diversity of thought and representation but also diversity in what matters and the way we think about relevant information for making decisions."

Of note: The U.K. report didn't mention groups providing what Pielke calls "shadow advice."

  • In the U.S., he points to the Great Barrington Declaration, a petition authored by a group of scientists advocating for allowing SARS-CoV-2 to spread among young, healthy people to reach herd immunity faster. The approach, considered by the White House last fall, drew fierce criticism from many other experts.
  • Such outside groups are to be expected, Pielke says, arguing that "formal advisory government mechanisms need a way to deal with them — by inviting them in or formally acknowledging them. Providing options is a much stronger advisory position for experts to be in than arguing whether hydroxychloroquine works or not."

The big picture: How exactly scientists and experts should inform policymaking is a long-standing question.

  • "We want science to play a prominent role in informing decisions," says Pielke.
  • But 'following the science' may not ask enough of both scientists and politicians. "It misplaces accountability, artificially limits the types of expertise you would take and deemphasizes the role of choice."
  • Instead, "politicians have to lead experts to provide them with information they need to make better decisions" and experts have to be sure policymakers tell them the decision they're trying to make, he says.
  • Ultimately, policy decisions — including those involving science — are political ones, with uncertainties and values. "By giving [policymakers] options, it holds them accountable for the decisions they make," says Weinkle.

What's next: President-elect Biden, who has said he will "follow the science," will inherit a deeply divided U.S. where trust in institutions like the CDC has eroded as the country struggles through a raging pandemic and climate change bears down.

  • Accountability on the part of policymakers will be key against that backdrop, experts say.
  • "If you have divisive politics, you cannot use appeals to expertise to paper over the uncertainties and the variety of possible options that you can consider by saying experts tell us to do this or do that," says Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University.
  • "The best you can do is be clear about uncertainties and why you are making the decision you are making and hope you can build confidence around those."
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