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COVID-19 has sparked new relationships between academia and policymakers – we must maintain them

In the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, the New York Times stated that “science has failed to guard us”. This was hardly unfair, given that scientists were unsure what had even caused the pandemic, let alone how to treat it – beyond basic public health measures such as fresh air and quarantining the sick.

A century on and things couldn’t be more different. Within weeks of the new disease emerging, the coronavirus genome had been sequenced and specific tests for SARS-CoV-2 developed. Within a year, new vaccines have been tested, licensed and rolled out to the public.

What’s more, the science has not remained confined to the scientists. Discussion of false positives and negatives, of antigens and antibodies and mutation and evolution has become the currency of the evening news and the radio phone-in – not least because they are the basis of policy decisions that are transforming our everyday lives.

Coming together

All that is true of the life sciences is equally true of the behavioural sciences. COVID-19 flourishes through human sociability, so limiting its spread depends on reshaping fundamental patterns of human action. Here too, what was once the preserve of the tutorial room has migrated to the talk show. We are all amateur epidemiologists and virologists and psychologists and anthropologists now.

What we are seeing is an unprecedented coming together, reflecting what has happened more generally during the pandemic. Faced by a common threat and experiencing a common fate, we have seen the emergence of a sense of shared identity which in turn has been the basis of widespread social solidarity. Neighbours who had lived for years in ignorance of each other have come together in street-level WhatsApp groups and community-level mutual aid groups.

Similarly, academic neighbours who passed each other daily on campus have come together in countless advisory groups – and realised how much more they can achieve in combination. The life scientists can tell the behavioural scientists (like me) what behaviours must change to contain the pandemic. In return, the behavioural scientists can tell the life scientists how to shape and reshape behaviour.

Woman on multiperson video call
The pandemic has led to new collaborative links. fizkes/Shutterstock

Equally, academics as a whole have come together with policymakers, policy advisors and practitioners to an unprecedented degree. In general terms, there has been an understanding of the need to collectivise the pandemic response – stressing the need to act for the “we” not the “I”.

More specifically, behavioural scientists have – often for the first time – come together with government communications teams. The former’s theoretical understanding of the bases of social influence has been allied to the latter’s technical skill and artistry in turning concepts into compelling products.

This renewed spirit of collaboration is one of the few positive things to come out of these terrible times. This is hopefully something we can preserve as the pandemic recedes. But in order to do so, we must avoid any temptation to romanticise crisis in retrospect – as in the one-sided myths of a “Blitz spirit” – and be candid about the problems of collaboration.

Overcoming assumptions

COVID-19 has highlighted the need to address the different cultures of academia and policymaking. To do this, we must expose some assumptions that often impede communication and collaboration between the two.

The first, and simplest, is time. You ask an academic a question, they will go away and think for a bit, plan a research proposal, submit it, do the research, write up the publication, have it peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. Only then can they give you an answer – in five or six years.

In contrast, a minister who needs to make a policy decision might grant you five or six months, if you are lucky. Sometimes it is more like five or six days. What must academics do if they are to oblige such policy requests?

They must be careful, certainly. Academics take time to produce answers for a very good reason: they want these answers to have sufficient heft to stand the test of time. Research which delivers predictable and specific short-term benefits can be easily monetised and done by market-led research institutions. What universities uniquely provide is more unpredictable, long-term understanding and benefits. To compromise this would endanger their very raison d’etre.

Scientists in lab
University research is often a long-term process. Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

Having said that, must we always set the long term against the short term – endurance against responsiveness? And if not, what does greater responsiveness require in terms of academic research practices, research funding and ethics procedures? While I am not committed to any specific changes, I believe we would do well to interrogate all aspects of academic research through the prism of time.

A second area of difference between academics and policymakers is the criteria for defining knowledge and acting on it. Academics assume they know nothing unless they know something beyond reasonable doubt. Yet for a policymaker who has to make a decision as to whether to act or not – where not acting is as consequential as acting – this approach would skew their outcomes dramatically. This is the case, for instance, when making decisions such as whether to keep pubs open or closed in the pandemic.

Here it may make sense to go on the balance of evidence – or even go to the opposite extreme and, using a precautionary principle, decide that even if there is only an outside chance of an effect (for example, that pubs impact community infection rates), to act as if it were a reality. Once academics engage directly with the policy world, we cannot escape from the way that politics shapes even our most basic assumptions.

Valuing knowledge

The final area of difference also relates to knowledge – but this time, what forms of knowledge are most valued. As an academic social psychologist, my interest lies in the general processes that shape human behaviour.

I have run plenty of studies looking at the way in which a person’s beliefs about what others in their group believe shape what they think and do. I am less interested in the specific area – such as group beliefs on climate change – in which I address this process, than the general relationships between group beliefs and individual beliefs.

However, for those involved in policy, the opposite is the case. They aren’t so interested in the generality as in the specific problem area. So when I tell these policymakers about studies on norms in (say) climate change behaviour, they are somewhat bemused – and I am equally bemused when they seemingly reject my offering while asking: “But are there any studies of norms in terms of adherence to mask wearing?”

I am not suggesting that the differences between academic and policy approaches are insuperable. Indeed, the problem is less the differences in assumptions as the fact that these assumptions are accepted in each particular world, and so don’t need to be discussed.

Unfortunately, when these worlds come together, that silence no longer functions as a sign of common understanding, and instead becomes a potential source of mutual misunderstanding. If we don’t understand the different starting points that lead us to different conclusions, we may begin to regard the other as obtuse, obstructive and unreasonable. It is only by realising and acknowledging our different needs and demands that we can work together more effectively.

In conclusion, the challenge of COVID-19 has produced a range of new and productive relationships between the academic and policy worlds. It has demonstrated the huge potential for bringing together government with a much wider range of disciplines than has traditionally been the case. But the future of these relationships is far from assured.

Whether they thrive or wither after the pandemic will be at least partly dependent upon our examination of the very basic assumptions – and not only those raised here – which frame our work and guide our practices, but which may differ from those of our would-be partners. Self-examination is never a comfortable exercise, since it reveals contingencies where once we assumed certainties. But the payoff is considerable – not only in terms of understanding the other, but also ourselves.

This article was first published by the International Public Policy Observatory, of which The Conversation is a partner organisation.

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