Lessons learned from Covid-19 for the Science-Policy-Society Interface

The collective global experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an unprecedented opportunity to examine the relationship between science, policy and wider society in what is often called the science-policy-society interface(s).

Kristiann Allen, University of Auckland, New Zealand and the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) explore the lessons learned during the pandemic and provide six recommendations moving forward.

a labyrinth with people

This submission was inspired by the Committee of Experts on Public Administration’s (CEPA) Guidance Note on Science Policy Interfaces, which was authored on behalf of CEPA, by the authors of the present submission.  The authors recommend that this submission be read in conjunction with the CEPA guidance note.

Navigating a novel pathogen and its ensuing pandemic has dispelled some of the most common misperceptions about science policy interfaces (SPIs) and revealed some relevant truths.  At least four lessons can be drawn:

  1. SPIs require a more sophisticated understanding of their functioning;
  2. Certain key roles are highlighted by the pandemic;
  3. SPI approaches must be dynamic to respond to different policy stages and conditions of the evolving issue or set of interrelated issues
  4. It is important that SPIs connect nationally, internationally and globally. These lessons are all the more important for future preparedness as a pandemic such as COVID-19 and the associated health responses intersect with climate and other environmental-related pressures and underlying socio-economic disparities within and across countries.

More sophisticated understanding

The pandemic has forced the retirement of any notion of ‘the SPI’ as a stable relationship between science and policy, engaging solely in the linear transfer of knowledge from experts to policy-makers. If it were only a matter of one side conveying evidence and the other side acting on it, we could reasonably expect almost perfect policy convergence on pandemic responses among countries, all facing the same pathogen. Instead, national, sub-national and supra-national responses have diverged widely based on different interpretations of the problem and how to address it.  Some governments have prioritized economic functioning, while others took a classic public health approach, which itself varied from ‘flattening the curve’ to eliminating the virus. These choices were shaped by how actors interpreted their contextual conditions. Almost all choices have been contested.

This experience has cemented a more sophisticated view of SPIs, especially within the Western democratic tradition. Well-functioning SPIs should be dynamic ecosystems of organizational arrangements and processes that serve to structure the relationships of diverse actors around complex policy problems like pandemic response. As the range of actors brings a plurality of perspectives, SPI processes must help facilitate the exchange of scientific evidence and place it in the context of surrounding (sometimes opposing) social values (Douglas 2009). By doing so, they create the conditions for evidence-informed policy options to emerge, with high credibility and social legitimacy (van den Hove 2007; United Nations Environment Program 2017), (Weingarten 1999).

Key roles within SPIs

We tend to think of this work taking place in formal government settings such as Panels, Advisory Committees or other institutional structures operating as ‘boundary organizations’ (Gustafsson and Lidskog 2018; Guston 2001; White, Larson, and Wutich 2018). But the pandemic also has revealed the role of SPI mechanisms outside of government (e.g. high profile individual academics and science journalism, etc.) in influencing policy consensus and promulgating ideas.  Whether formal or informal, the experience of pandemic has served to illustrate and affirm that boundary roles in the SPI ecosystem are distinct from the conventional scientific work of research, publication and dissemination.[6] (Gluckman, Bardsley, and Kaiser 2021; Pielke 2007). They include:

  1. Scientific knowledge generators: researchers and technical experts
  2. Scientific knowledge synthesizers: with specialized skills in knowledge integration and meta-analysis
  3. Scientific knowledge brokers: those who work as multidirectional conduits between SPI stakeholder groups
  4. Science communicators.

Some boundary organizations will have practitioners in each of these roles, especially organizations that specialize in certain sectors of public policy.  More often, however, the roles will arise from different parts of the SPI ecosystem and need to coordinate their efforts deliberately.  This is especially true during a crisis like Covid-19. For instance, ministries of health have most often coordinated these roles, including working with specific academics and science communicators outside of the ministry.

Different approaches for different stages and conditions

The experience of the unfolding pandemic has also offered a unique view of how SPIs are mobilized in different ways at different stages of the crisis, depending on the types of decisions and actions needed. At the outset, when treatment and prevention drugs were unknown and ICU protocols were only emerging, the best tools available were the behavioural measures of public health (i.e. social distancing and increasing mobility restrictions, masking, hygiene). This approach demanded collective action, which in turn required careful science communication to the public, informed by the social and behavioural sciences, as well as community input. The latter has been especially important in the context of multi-cultural communities.

Such behavioural restrictions wear thin quickly, however, and more comprehensive pandemic responses emerged as the pandemic, knowledge of the pathogen and the efficacy of measures all evolved. Responses have been based on how officials have interpreted new knowledge and the evolving threat within their socio-political and material contexts. It is in this interpretation that the interplay of scientific knowledge and normative public values within SPIs is best illustrated (Wesselink and Hoppe 2020).

We have seen the Covid-19 threat constructed (framed) in many different ways, each with different sets of consequences (e.g. as primarily an economic threat, a threat to personal autonomy, a threat to specific sub-populations, to mental health, etc.). All of these are valid concerns, but the relative emphasis has varied across time and place. At times, SPIs must adopt iterative processes that enable consensus on the framing and structuring of the problem (or set of interrelated problems) so as to synthesize evidence from multiple, and sometimes competing, perspectives (Mair et al. 2019; OECD 2020; Stevance et al. 2020; Wesselink and Hoppe 2020). To this end, the key functions of SPIs at various stages include:

  1. problem framing: defining the nature and extent of the problem, in a collaborative way and informed by evidence
  2. problem structuring: minimizing disagreement and uncertainty in the nature of the problem and the nature of the knowledge needed for action.
  3. knowledge selection: determining relevant knowledge needed for problem structuring and designing solutions; involves integration of various disciplinary knowledges and reflection on possible hidden biases
  4. Managing relationships between stakeholders: structured processes that protect the integrity of the science while preventing strict technocracy.  

Covid has exemplified the need for agile SPIs that can move through these functions as real time data and information shed new light that can prompt reframing, restructuring or seeking new types of knowledge to inform policy options anew in quick learning and adaptive iterations.

At the same time, the pandemic has also demonstrated that linear processes of knowledge sharing do have a place in well-functioning SPI strategies. For instance, when there is consensus on policy directions (to ‘flatten the curve’ for instance), a more direct and linear process of evidence provisioning is still an important SPI function.  Evidence-informed modeling and analysis aimed at characterizing the extent of the threat or impact in different populations or testing different policy variables is invaluable intelligence to optimize the policy response.

Connecting SPIs vertically and horizontally for better policy coherence

Both the iterative and linear processes of SPIs are made more effective when they are connected horizontally across sectors and across levels of government vertically. The pandemic’s deep and pervasive disruption has demonstrated the systemic nature of nearly all socio-economic activity. No matter which sector is prioritized within the pandemic response, there are ripple effects across all sectors, which require cross-sectoral collaboration to fully examine and accommodate. Involving experts with different sectoral expertise has helped to mitigate the tradeoffs. For instance, the International Public Policy Observatory in the UK is a newly established boundary organization designed to help policy makers apply systemic social science insights to help mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

At the same time, connecting SPIs internationally and globally is just as important as connecting intersectorally. Policy trackers and observatories have proliferated since the outset of the pandemic (see the Oxford Super-Tracker). This is one way for policy makers to source policy ideas to apply domestically.  However, when experts can also share underpinning evidence as well as a common position on what to count as evidence (whether for the formation or the evaluation of policies) it enables the necessary international and global collective action against the pandemic. In turn, the necessary conditions that enable such sharing are globally integrated SPI mechanisms such as:

  • intergovernmental agencies (e.g. WHO) convening experts and facilitative dialogue;
  • multi-lateral research consortia;
  • multi-lateral ‘war-chest’ type funding; and
  • opportunities for high-level policy dialogue that includes public policy and science policy, so that countries can better align their science and technology systems (see International Science Council and International Institute for Advanced Systems Analysis joint project: Pathways to a Post-Covid world)

At the multilateral level, the foremost organisation for establishing discourse and agenda-setting on SPI is the International Science Council (ISC), for which the Program of Work usefully includes the mapping and development of SPIs within the UN system (see ISC projects Science in Policy and Public Discourse and Science-policy interfaces at the global level).


The 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report may have issued advice for pre-pandemic world, but its recommendations for Science-Policy-(and society) interfaces not only hold true, but take on added importance in light of the pandemic’s lessons.  Some of the key recommendations are recalled and reframed below:

  • Knowledge sharing platforms with data interoperability and accessibility;
  • Permanent national expert panels in key areas of sustainable development;
  • Science-Society collaboration and co-design mechanisms;
  • Investment in sustainability science which brings together scientific, practical and indigenous worldviews;
  • Investment in quality science journalism;
  • Investment in science diplomacy to encourage global research cooperation, especially South-South and South-North relationships.

These recommendations can be enacted at both national and multi-lateral (global) levels by a mix of issue-specific and generalized SPI structures and processes.  The complexity of these interacting sociotechnical and socio-political impacts of the pandemic have thrown into deep relief the importance of well-structured, well-integrated and well-connected SPIs.

Image by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash