Build a science advice system fit for global crises

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7th April 2020

Sir Peter Gluckman

Koi Tu: Centre for Informed Futures


Coronavirus has revealed both the importance and limitations of current approaches, says Peter Gluckman
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the complex interface been scientific evidence, experts, public institutions, the public, policymakers, diplomats and politicians. It has exposed very different responses in different jurisdictions and demonstrates the challenges of decision-making when the evidence is incomplete but decisions are urgent. Policymakers face competing advice from formal advisory mechanisms, academics, the media and others.

In all of this, the need for transdisciplinarity is apparent. Epidemiologists and virologists do not have all the answers—social and other sciences are also needed. The amount of time that has been spent debating the merits of particular predictive models may have made them less effective at highlighting the core issues for planners. And all such models are confounded by the need to consider the human responses to calls for quarantine and social distancing, and by the specifics of local context.

Every country faces its own particular and growing practical challenges around, for example, issues of supply lines for medical equipment are growing. Policy responses have often shown an overlay of domestic politics. Deliberate misinformation, often related to these politics, has confounded matters.

In our interconnected and noisy world, can a global body such as the World Health Organization cut through, or does it have structural weaknesses that limit its effectiveness? Even if it can, the urgent reality of prioritising healthcare decisions and resources is raising its own set of ethical and other local issues that will play out differently in different countries and across different cultures.

Clearly there will be new lessons to learn and new problems to face as we move through the crisis, but we must also understand how we got here. Covid-19 is but one of a series of zoonotic infections, which cross from other species into humans, that countries have faced in recent years, albeit one with characteristics that make it particularly challenging.

Unheeded warnings

For years, scientists and public-health experts have pointed out the inevitability of a pandemic. Where national risk estimates and registers exist, they have long suggested the high probability of zoonotic pandemic. Yet here we are.

Why do risk registers and analyses not get traction in policy decisions? Why do governments give lower priority to investing in long-term risk reduction than the probability and impact assessments indicate that they should? Is this a failure of global leadership and persuasion?

The 2011 Fukushima tsunami and nuclear meltdown led the United Nations to create the 2015 Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction. This proved a missed opportunity to point out both the likelihood and the severity of biological disasters.

Does the WHO have the right tools? Do we need a more coherent mode of scientific input to policy at the global level?

Read the full article on Professional Research News