The opportunity of COVID-19 to redesign our scientific advice systems

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6th April 2020

Tateo Arimoto

National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies & Japan Science and Technology Agency

The new Coronavirus (COVID-19) has been rapid in its spread and the socio-economic fallout is quickly becoming humanity’s biggest post-war crisis. Situations such as this enable people to recognise the day-to-day importance of timely political decisions based on scientific evidence.
Science is able to build a responsible and thorough basis for judgments and decisions by people, political leaders and administrators for change of lifestyle, prohibition of entry into a country, city blockade and school closure under the current COVID-19 crisis.

Japan's scientific advice system has been in place since the 1970s in areas such as pollution and pharmaceutical regulations etc. Particularly since the Fukushima nuclear incident, these advisory systems and codes of conduct have been expanded and reinforced in various field. And in recent years, advisory institutions have been set up in many countries, as well as the creation of international advisory networks for climate change, disasters, food safety, earthquake prediction and nuclear accidents etc.

Depending on the political systems and the types of problems, this kind of scientific advice system normally separates “risk assessment” – performed by scientists and experts – from “risk management and policy decision” made by political leaders and administrators. Appropriate and trustworthy communication is required between the two sides. In general, these practices and rules have been globally recognized.

In Japan it is now perceived to be normal practice that policy decisions are based on scientific evidence and risk assessment by an expert committee. Yet in this current pandemic, some have observe that in Japan, politics was ahead of the curve in initially responding without a good basis of scientific evidence.

Emergency responses present particular challenges because, particularly in the early stages, there is often insufficient separation between risk assessment and risk management and policy decision. At this time of COVID-19, even in advanced countries, which have matured science-policy interface, their advisory systems have been unable to respond to this historically unprecedented situation. This is complicated by the fact that the situation has swiftly expanded from a medical situation to a socio-economic and national security issue.

Only now does it seem that the systems of effective science advice have been restored as information on the process has been disclosed.

The sciences that provide objective and responsible evidence for policy making require independence and transparency, quality and quantity of data, the appropriate selection of experts and organisations, and trustworthy communication with society where causality is uncertain. Science also generally has the luxury of being able to devote considerable time to collecting and analysing data.

Political decisions are affected not only by scientific grounds, but also by social, economic, and political factors, and often a lack of time. It is therefore important in emergency response situations that politicians and scientists talk and understanding about the differences each faces in values and speed of action. From this comes trust.

The global academic network of which I am a member, the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) and its parent body the International Science Council (ISC), are working at the science/society/policy interfaces to launch a “Science Advice and COVID-19 – Evidence in Emergencies” initiative.

Its purpose is to aggregate the information and the lessons arising out of the COVID-19 outbreak, where quality research and evidence is needed to inform policy decision.

We need to build global collaborative networks for sharing information and experiences, consisting of national governments, industries, universities, OECD, UN organisations and INGSA/ISC etc.

The lessons from this will inform future choices, assist to better understand those that have been already made, and aim to foresight how these political, social and financial tremors will shape our future as a new normal, including that of the scientific advice system.

In the 21st century, there will be an increasing number of serious problems at the interface between politics and science, in various fields such as climate catastrophe, natural and artificial disasters, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

To prepare for these challenges, it is necessary to redesign the current Japanese scientific advice system for each ministry and vertical divisions, into an integrated system beyond the organisational and disciplinary boundaries that exist. This can be assisted by a new age of artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.

COVID-19 presents us a great opportunity for deep thinking and bold actions.

Adaption of a piece to be published in the NIKKEI newspaper