What is the right distance for social distancing? Do masks prevent contagion, and should they be mandatory? Countries provide different answers to such questions, on the basis of various sources of advice and expertise. The global dimension of the COVID-19 emergency, and the diverse ways countries are approaching it, has highlighted intrinsic challenges in the provision of scientific advice during transnational emergencies.
These challenges were explored in the 2018 OECD study Scientific Advice During Crises: Facilitating Transnational Co-operation and Exchange of Information, which provides recommendations and learnings based on an in-depth analysis of the science advice role in all phases of the crisis management cycle (preparedness, response, and recovery). From our involvement in that study, we reflect here on some of the key lessons learned, and their relevance to COVID-19.
Trusted and transparent scientific advice is critical for addressing global pandemics like COVID-19, both domestically and internationally. This is especially true as countries have taken different approaches to managing the crisis, which has led to criticisms and accusations of both under- and over-reacting. Uniquely, a prolonged threat of outbreak resurgence exists through cross-border activity until a vaccine is widely available, and so it is vital that countries can trust each other in their crisis management strategy.
As highlighted in the report, being able to understand the rationale for decisions taken by other countries, and the evidence and advice that underpins them, is key to ensure trust and sustained cooperation. A finding of the original report, and particularly resonant now in the response phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, is the recommendation for clear information exchange across national boundaries. We note that both the clarity and the exchange of information are pertinent, and ideally occur through existing networks on pre-agreed terms of access and frequency.
Sources of expertise
Countries are likely to differ in the range of experts consulted in crisis situations, in terms of their disciplinary background, seniority and institutional affiliation, which can lead to distinct perspectives on the issue at stake. While some countries have standing mechanisms for scientific advice that are activated in such cases, others will draw on the heads of prominent research institutes, or on ad hoc expert groups created for the occasion. The OECD has recently conducted a survey to map out the range of approaches, building on the categories developed for the 2018 study. Countries might also differ in their openness to novel or lateral sources of expertise i.e. outside the ‘usual suspects’, such as advice and analysis from non-mandated sources and from experts based abroad.
Evidence, data and quality assurance
The range and quality of the data and evidence available (or not) to decision-makers in different countries will vary, as will what exactly it describes, if not standardised. Both relevance and interpretation are naturally influenced by values, context, and cultural norms. For example, there may be a preference for domestic research, for particular disciplines - or lenses of interest such as impact on agriculture, tourism etc. Individual countries also have different approaches to ensure quality and legitimacy of the advice, such as forms of peer review, informal routes of advice, and a need for consensus. All countries will have to strike a balance between casting a wide net for relevant evidence and safeguarding against misinformation. Openness about the evidence being considered or not, including the processes and rationale for how it is sourced and selected, is therefore necessary to foster trust domestically and abroad.
Time is uniquely a critical variable in the COVID-19 response, as the situation in a given country provides a glimpse of the near future for others who are behind in the contagion curve (from China, Italy, Spain US etc.). While withholding or delaying the release of information about the magnitude of impacts can be tempting, whether to divert analytical resources to other priorities, avoid fear, negative image or economic consequence, this can severely hamper response elsewhere and undermine trust.
Limitations to the role of science
Although scientific evidence and advice are crucially important in informing responses to the pandemic, it is also important to recognise their limitations. Models, for example, can play a vital role in setting the boundaries of possible scenarios, but they rely on a range of assumptions and can neither predict the future, nor objectively validate policy actions. Experts have to make extra-scientific judgements about the relevance of data, required assumptions, and the acceptable level of uncertainty. Areas of existing uncertainty and disagreement among the experts should therefore be acknowledged, as well as how decisions are taken in the face of this.
Science alone cannot determine which policy actions to take, and which trade-offs are acceptable. Decisions about future courses of actions, especially in the face of incomplete knowledge, remain political and value-based. Policy makers cannot afford to ignore the advice coming from scientific experts, but should not abdicate responsibility for difficult choices by hiding behind scientific authority. Acknowledging these limitations requires humility from both scientists and policymakers, recognising the constraints of each domain.
In the response phase especially, complex crises like COVID-19 require borderless exchange of information against the common challenge. Transnational collaboration in the provision of scientific advice should not imply a ‘one-size-fits-all’, but rather leave room for a plurality of responses that fit the unique values and circumstances of each local reality. While all countries are working towards the same goal, the territory they must navigate will differ. Science is a powerful tool to indicate possible routes, but the optimal choice for a given context remains a value-based decision that requires political commitment. Transparency simply gives robustness and credence to the route chosen.
Finally, the 2018 OECD study noted the importance of keeping one eye on the horizon during response, for cascading and systemic risk. Simultaneous systemic failures such as regime destabilising, mass displacement, multiple food shocks - could be triggered as part of a chain reaction and international communications provide early signals to prevent the worst loss. As some countries move into a recovery phase, there is an even greater need for outward-looking scientific advice so that recovery is not undermined.