Pandemic policy making needs science

The Academy President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, reflects on how pandemic policy making needs science.

As lockdown eases and society begins to get back to a new normal, we are beginning to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on our society and consider what the future may hold. While the prospect of connecting with our loved ones again brings joy and hope, it is coupled with the concern that easing measures too quickly could bring a second spike of infections and a rapid return to lockdown.

Many are frustrated or exhausted by the past few months, and this is understandable. There are so many issues at play here, so much to dissect, that it would be very easy to lose our focus.

Some ask organisations like us to use our voice to shout louder about failings of Government and missed opportunities, yet I believe we must remain politically independent, clear sighted and constructive.

There are, of course, occasions when forcefully calling out the government is the right course, and over the years we have been vocal about our concerns about research regulation, science funding, and career pathways. But spending time simply criticising the UK response to the pandemic – with the enormous benefit of hindsight – risks diverting our energy away from the things we need to do now to create a better future. 

We need to keep our momentum, analyse our response and adapt rapidly. We need to focus our efforts in the places most likely to have an impact. Change can be called for through both loud and quiet conversations, and it is keeping the conversation going that is most important.

And even in this time of uncertainty, there are some things I am sure of.

High quality, independent research is essential

For me, a clear positive I can take away from the pandemic is the impressive way the research community have rallied to respond to the pandemic. Researchers across the UK have shown formidable energy, resilience, expertise and skill. Many research groups have redirected their efforts to better understand the virus, or contribute to the efforts to develop new vaccines or therapeutics, or understand its impact on our society – from the behaviours and attitudes of the public to the way it is affecting NHS or social care.

Others have begun work to reduce the fallout of the pandemic, whether that is the impact on mental health, or other health conditions that are being neglected during this time. And many left the lab for frontline clinical work, leaving research behind, at least temporarily. Many are now transitioning back to research and will need support to get back up and running.

This extraordinary effort in the most difficult of circumstances shows UK research at its best. We should be proud that our community has punched well above its weight globally in terms of understanding the virus and how its spread can be reduced and ultimately halted, how it can be treated, and understanding the impact the pandemic has had on our broader physical and mental health.

But this research, and the researchers doing it, need to be supported and protected through the uncertain times ahead. The Academy has launched a new careers support space to help during this period. The Academy continues to argue that science will need protecting against the realities of Brexit. We also need to continue to ensure healthy levels of research and development funding as the impact of the pandemic on our universities and research charities takes its toll.

We must continue to inform policy

There are many who feel personal anger and disappointment in this government and its handling of the crisis, and some who argue that scientists should step away to avoid tarnishing the reputation of science.

My view is that there has never been a more important time for science to inform policymaking. It is true that scientists may risk their reputation or face public and professional criticism to make sure that politicians, civil servants and the public hear the latest science. It is our job as a community to find ways to support them.

As difficult as it may be, we owe it to the public and the NHS to carry on engaging with policymaking. Stepping away from Government at a time when our knowledge is most needed would be to fail our society. As a national Academy we must also remain politically independent, so that we can provide the most useful analysis and insight through the pandemic and in its aftermath.

The role of science in decision making

But we need to be deliberate about the way we proceed from here. We need to lay bare the role science is playing in policymaking. This means being even more transparent, and being clearer about the strengths and limitations of research findings.

We need to be aware that as important as science is, there are many other factors involved in policymaking. For example, science may suggest how best to keep the transmission rate of the virus low, but it does not give us the answer of how to use societal values to balance this need against the risks of keeping children out of school, cancer clinics closed or widespread unemployment. 

We must make research findings and advice we give to policy makers more accessible to the public. To this end, all the reports the Academy has produced to inform policy makers through the pandemic have been published on our website, and we have ensured they sit alongside plain English, accessible summaries. This allows society to judge if Government is following scientific advice for themselves. We must not only seek views of the public to inform our research strategies and policymaking, but actively involve them in the co-production of that research and advice. This is difficult under the tight timelines and urgent deadlines of a pandemic, but not impossible with creative and innovative thinking.

We also need to be careful not to over-sell science. As positive as it is to hear about the latest potential treatment or vaccine development we must avoid giving false hope by being honest about the challenges and timeframes involved.

We need to learn rapidly to make a difference

As we look to the future we need to learn from what has happened and refocus our efforts to make sure we are doing what will have the greatest future impact.

We need to make sure research focuses on the issues we will face in the future, whether that is how to deal with a second wave, an increase in mental health disorders or the healthcare fallout from the pandemic.

Academy policy work on mental health research priorities during the pandemic and coronavirus winter scenarios have shown how bringing research communities together alongside patient representatives can share what we know, attract funding to priority areas and give us a clear roadmap for the future.

We must collaborate and learn with countries around the world, as we did during our Grand Challenges Research Fund workshop this month on the COVID-19 response in lower and middle income countries.

Our current rapid policy project is anticipating a reasonable worst case scenario for winter and asking what we can do now to prepare. There is a window of opportunity now to put in place better systems to tackle coronavirus a second time round.

This is undoubtedly the time to learn from our response to the pandemic. What were we underprepared for? How well did services and organisations work together? What expertise or infrastructure was missing? What do we know now that we didn’t then?

Only if we keep learning can we hope to make the most of research and its potential to help our society.

Find all the Academy's ongoing COVID-19 projects on our coronavirus hub page.  

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