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Science policy advice in times of crisis

The current crises we face are interconnected and complex. Referred to as poly-crises, their global implications pose significant challenges to effective management.

Anticipating future scenarios is key to crisis management, and here, science plays a crucial role. During crises, science is also essential to provide scientific legitimacy to politically-mandated measures that may be unpopular with the public. However, as evidenced during the recent pandemic, miscommunication around evidence-informed policies can erode public trust and foster hostility towards experts. Such backlash calls for improved communication from policymakers about the nature of science, emphasizing its open processes and inherent uncertainties to avoid creating false expectations. It is also essential to recognize that scientific and technological innovation alone cannot solve the crises of our times. Instead, every crisis should be viewed as an opportunity to drive social change through new institutions and a renewed trust in science.

Poly-crisis requires better communication

Not all crises are the same. We now experience the accumulation of interconnected crises linked by the complex dynamics of networks. Their causes and effects cascade into one another. Their economic, social, health and political consequences are intertwined. They also spread globally, and what happens in far-flung places now has an immediate local impact.

Such an accumulation of crises is known as poly-crisis: a hierarchy of crises that is difficult to grasp because they are geographically distributed across different levels and social groups, triggering further unexpected events and processes. The poly-crisis is intensified by the increase in geopolitical tensions, which gives rise to fears of the disintegration of the previous global order through increased regionalization and newly built walls.

In such widespread volatility, crisis management must involve more than simply reacting quickly to unexpected events. It must anticipate an uncertain future and prepare strategies to cope with the ‘what happens if…’.

These observations also apply to science, particularly science policy advisory in times of crisis. As scientific exchange becomes restricted, scientific cooperation is partially discontinued. However, because continuity is still in demand, the reckless continuation of business as usual fades into the background but does not disappear. When fear arises, pushing people into passivity or aggressiveness, politics must convey calm without creating the illusion that everything is under control, which requires proper communication.

Science for policy in times of crisis

The need for the scientific legitimization of politically imposed measures grows when quick action is demanded. Especially when measures are unusual or unpopular, and their expected impact is not immediately foreseeable. However, science can only suggest options for action, and political decisions remain under the responsibility of political decision-makers. In a crisis, these roles remain valid, but the subtle and trusting interplay between science and policy must also be communicated to the public.

Science is very good at dealing with uncertainty, while the public and politics crave certainty. This can lead to mutual misunderstandings and false expectations and, during the pandemic, led to increased skepticism of science and even hostility towards experts. Future crisis will again necessitate unpopular or unusual measures, and policymakers and their advisers should draw the right conclusions from the recent past. 

One of the main lessons includes better communicating to society how science ‘works’ as an open-ended process and with what methods. Basic research is inherently uncertain because one does not know what results will come out and their impact often comes to market only years later in the form of new technologies or mRNA vaccines. But without basic research, there is simply no new knowledge.

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From evidence-based to evidence-informed policies

Policymakers are pressured to back their decisions with evidence in times of crisis. Nevertheless, what is evidence, and how does one recognize it? How does one distinguish an ‘evidence-based policy’ from ‘policy-based evidence’, i.e. from a policy that finds its matching and legitimizing evidence only afterwards? 

The term ‘evidence-based’ comes from health care, where randomized clinical trials are the accepted standard for examining treatment effects for their efficacy and side effects. No policy measure can meet this standard of evidence. Controlled experiments in other areas of society are practically impossible. If similar standards of evidence were applied to politics, it would effectively lead to complete paralysis.

Nevertheless, abandoning the demand for evidence for political decisions would be wrong. Complex issues and contexts require more support from scientific methods and procedures. They can lend legitimacy and even allow politics to maintain or regain trust. Evidence is not absolute. This holds especially for predictions derived from mathematical models and fore-sight methods that provide answers to the question ‘what if? 

Models are made under certain assumptions, and their statements’ reliability depends on the availability and quality of real-world data. What matters most is how adequate they are for the purpose they are created, true to the phrase ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. So, what is taken as ‘evidence’ for policy decisions cannot be answered unambiguously. A change in language reflects this insight. Instead of ‘evidence-based’, speaking about evidence-oriented or evidence-informed policymaking is more honest and sensible.

Every crisis also brings opportunities

We find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. We rightly celebrate amazing scientific breakthroughs and technological advances while witnessing at the same time the fragility of liberal democracies. Social inequalities are rising, increasing discontent with politics. Moreover, many institutions need more capacity to provide adequate solutions. 

In the past, public support was fuelled by the belief in progress that lasted as long as prosperity was reasonably sustained. The divergence between the dynamics of innovation and the ability of social institutions to maintain social cohesion began when unrestrained economic growth and the exploitation of the natural environment and social justice faltered. The belief in progress became untrustworthy. The imaginary ‘contract’ between science and society became brittle. 

However, a new ‘contract’ or a new ‘narrative’ is not yet in sight. As an example, the problem of limited natural resources requires innovation to be solved sustainably. Technological innovation alone cannot solve most of the crises of our time. It must go hand in hand with social innovation powered by new institutions and trust in modern science. The future is open. Every crisis entails losing control and revealing limits, but their constraints make us inventive. Let us put recent lessons learned into practice and leverage the crisis to innovate socially – for the good of all.

Helga Nowotny is a member of the ISC Fellowship.

Image by Klaus Berdiin Jensen on Flickr.

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