Re-imagining science advice in a post-COVID-19 future

1 June 2020

By Dr Chris Tyler (Director of Research and Policy, UCL, STEaPP) and Dr Adam Cooper (Lecturer in Social Science and Public Policy, UCL, STEaPP)

Science advisory structures have been shaped by events. In the UK, the modern science advisory system was heavily influenced by the experience of dealing with the BSE crisis, with minor but significant reforms following the foot and mouth crisis and the sacking of David Nutt, the former head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

In the US, the backbone of its science advisory system sprung up in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis (the Department of Energy) and various environmental crises (the Environmental Protection Agency); also of that period are the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the now defunct Office of Technology Assessment.

It would be surprising if the COVID-19 crisis did not have an influence on science advisory systems around the world. No country will go through the experience of dealing with the novel coronavirus without learning something about how science and evidence inform public policy decision making. Some countries with outstanding science advisory systems, like the UK, have struggled with COVID-19; while others with a comparably skeletal science advisory system, like South Korea, have fared better. (For a comparison of the two advisory systems, see here.) There is much to learn.

This essay is about how we think the UK science advisory system should subtly change, much of which is borne out by the COVID-19 experience. However, many of these UK lessons are applicable in other countries, and the reader should bear that in mind. In short, of ‘science advice’, we think that the ‘science’ should be diversified and the ‘advice’ modernised.

The ‘science’ of science advice should be opened up in particular ways. Typically science advice refers to the natural sciences. Pielke’s 2007 book The Honest Broker establishes a series of physical science examples such as “tornado politics” and “abortion politics”. And in Jasanoff’s 1994 The Fifth Branch, science means the physical sciences: “Should we eat supermarket apples, use hairspray, drive cars in inner cities, incinerate our wastes, generate nuclear energy…” she asks (Cooper, 2016).

In the real world, all of these issues and questions have to be answered by a wide range of sciences, including the natural sciences, but also the social sciences and engineering sciences. Tornado politics needs to understand the social sciences of how people respond to tornado warnings and the engineering sciences of how structures should be built to withstand them. Whether or not we eat supermarket apples is not just about the natural sciences of pesticides, but the social sciences of risk and the engineering sciences of cleaning and transporting fresh apples.

With COVID-19, the natural sciences of biology and epidemiology are important, but so too are the behavioural sciences (which the government has taken on board) and the sociology or human geography of daily life (which it has not), and the pharmacological and PPE engineering sciences (which has been lacking on SAGE). It wasn’t until mid April that a specialist board was set up to bring in engineering of social distancing, from antimicrobial coatings to mechanisms that open doors hands free.

One other manifestation of the primacy of the natural sciences is the selection of postholder for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser position, who is always a natural scientist. One way around this would be the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist and a Chief Engineering Adviser to coordinate social science and engineering advice across government and to act as a point of contact for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser prior to advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This idea is not new: it was suggested by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee back in 2009.

Another way around this is to adopt the concept of the ‘transdisciplinary science adviser’. What do we mean by this? This has multiple aspects, but a key one, in its simplest terms, is a complement to the idealised T-shaped policymaker, who is sufficiently broad (the top of the T) with a certain depth of knowledge (the upright of the T). Expert policy officials are often broad in their policy skills but shallow in their depth of topical knowledge. Science advisors are often the reverse.

Simply putting the two together does not get to a balanced picture in and of itself. The UK SAGE COVID-19 experience shows us that. The evidence points towards there being a need to have science which directly supports policy thinking. At the moment, the two are in different dimensions – policy thinking is driven by an economic mindset that cannot incorporate physical or engineering sciences, leading to unhelpful disconnects.

A new class of policy-maker – and policy-making – is needed where appraisal more directly integrates science and engineering analysis. A direct relationship between the science and engineering thinking and the policy skills creates diagonal supports on the T. This helps to ensure that policy making channels credible research that is also salient and legitimate (Cash et al., 2003). This is true of the science adviser too.

Our second suggestion is that the ‘advice’ needs to be modernised. Most of the processes that made up the advisory system are very old: meetings, roundtables, councils and the like. Some would say that they use methods that are tried and tested. Others would point out that they have not actually been tested.

We do not know how successful the science advisory council really is. There are many other models to try. For example the meetings in rooms surrounded with screens with data on them (like P&G’s board room), strategic use of silence (Amazon’s requiring six page memos prepared before any meeting, to be read in 30 minutes of silence before a discussion) and meeting tools like Slack that allow teams to meet and work in a single online location (Mulgan, 2015) or ensuring balanced input from all members (Woolley et al 2010). Any of these methods, not all mutually exclusive we note, could add value to the typical science advisory meeting.

Another component that needs to be modernised is the presumption of transparency. Good science is transparent, because only then can assumptions, methods and analyses be tested. The same is true of science advice. It is unacceptable for SAGE’s advice to be private. It is unacceptable for us not to know what questions that committee was answering, what information it discussed and what conclusions it came to. It is unacceptable that the government gets to make the claim that it is ‘following the science’ when we know that the science is contested and the uncertainties are high.

Throughout COVID-19 it has not been clear upon what principles the science advice has been given. The government has some principles for science advice, but these include transparency, which certainly has not been followed. These principles were last updated in 2010, and do not include reference, for example, to uncertainty or computer models. It is time that they are updated. A place to start would be the Lorentz Principles from 2017.

Finally, on this point of modernising advice, it is time to re-think the role of the science adviser. Following Piekle’s successful book entitled The Honest Broker, many a science adviser will say that ideally their role is that of an honest broker of policy alternatives. We think that that is preferable to being an issue advocate, for sure. However, a good science adviser is a kind of advocate. They are, or should be, an advocate for the habits and spirit of the enlightenment: they should advocate for the use of evidence in decision making and the role of rigour and testing in deciding what constitutes evidence. They should strive for the best kinds of evidence, the best kinds of decision making and, in so doing, support the best kinds of policy.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19

Dr Chris Tyler is Director of Research and Policy in University College London’s Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP). Prior to joining STEaPP, Chris spent five years as Director of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).

Dr Adam Cooper is Lecturer in Social Science and Public Policy at STEaPP. He is an applied interdisciplinary social scientist with over 10 years direct experience of the UK Civil Service. Prior to joining UCL he was the Head of Social Science Engagement at the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2011.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article:
This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.