In my previous two blogposts, I introduced two specific functions that science can offer society in an emergency. One is to explain rationally and from a scientific viewpoint the crisis the society is confronting. The other is rising to the challenge of the crisis and solving it through scientific research. This article will introduce one further social function of science in under emergency conditions by describing how scientists provide policymakers with informed, scientific advice.
Science’s relation to public policy began when science started to be funded with public funds during the twentieth century. Scientists needed to explain the meaning of their research activities as well as win public support. It was in this way that “policies for science” developed. This pattern emerged as the traditional form of science policy, aiming to promote scientific research. Following World War II, scientists began to occupy roles as scientific advisers to policymakers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Originally, the main duty of a scientific adviser was to achieve a science policy better able to promote scientific research.
Approaching the twenty-first century, the relationship between science and policy evolved further yet. Policymaking became a complex process that involved a wide range of elements each requiring their own consideration, and policymakers began to privilege policy that could be based upon convincing facts. Of course, it is science that is expected to provide these reliable facts. This new pattern is often described as “science for policy” and it led to the evidence-based policymaking that is common today. In the UK, this change was brought about by a major crisis of the 1990s. In 1986, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), more popularly known as Mad Cow Disease, was first observed in the UK. Early in the crisis, scientists, especially in the UK, thought that BSE could not be transmitted from cows to other species, including humans. Hence UK scientists at the time did not warn of the possible risk of contracting BSE through consuming beef parts from the so-called mad cows. From mid-90s, it became increasingly evident that among sufferers of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, some cases were likely have been originated with beef consumption. Today, this disease is known as vCJD, or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and it is linked to a specific protein identified as “abnormal Prion” found in the brains of mad cows.
This incident sent shockwaves through the scientific community and greatly impacted the scientific advisory organs in the UK. The British government made great efforts to improve its scientific advisory mechanisms. These included the development of a set of guidelines entitled “Principles of Scientific Advice to Government” and the creation of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
“Principles of Scientific Advice to Government,” published in 2010, stipulates a need for clear roles & responsibilities, independence, as well as transparency & openness for all scientific advice. In addition, the 2010 document details how such Principles should be applied. Keys among these Principles are scientific advisers’ freedom from political interference, the Government’s duty to explain publicly the reasons for policy decisions—particularly when a decision is not consistent with scientific advice, and the need for both Government and scientific advisers to build mutual trust. The Principles simply and clearly describe what characterizes scientific advice within a government, and the document has influenced advice mechanisms for Science and Technology Policy in the US as well as a revision of the “Code of Conduct for Scientists” issued by the Science Council of Japan. Meanwhile, SAGE is the practical and ad hoc group formed of the Government’s chief scientific adviser and other scientific advisers to individual departments within the UK Government to cope with specific events and to advise governmental actions. SAGE was activated during Ebola and Zika outbreaks, at the time of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi accident, and during volcanic ash emergencies. In summary, the UK maintains the leading science advisory system in the world.
Then, what exactly happened to scientific advisory mechanisms around the world when COVID-19 hit? Dr. William Colglazier, former scientific adviser to the United States Secretary of State, points to an initial-stage catastrophic failure in the science-policy interface surrounding COVID-19, both nationally and internationally, including in the UK. Colglazier mentions an inadequate sharing of information through the WHO and inadequate testing at the beginning of the pandemic. Mistakes happened everywhere. What’s more, misinformation disseminated widely to the public, sometimes by government leaders through the media. If proper actions had been taken in unison by all governments, the impacts of COVID-19 would have been far less, he states.