It is critically important for scientists and policy makers to work together to develop and implement policies that have the greatest likelihood of success in responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This is particularly challenging in a situation where much of the evidence is uncertain and is evolving rapidly. Science advisory processes are organised differently in different countries but they invariably engage a variety of institutions, committees and individuals to assess and provide evidence to policy makers. The following principles are important in building an effective and trustworthy science advisory process:

1. Have a clear remit, with defined roles and responsibilities for its various actors. This includes:

  • a clear definition and demarcation of advisory versus decision-making functions and roles

  • defined roles and responsibilities, and the necessary expertise for communication

  • an ex-ante definition of the legal role and potential liability for all individuals and institutions involved

  • the necessary institutional, logistical and personnel support relative to its remit.

2. Involve the relevant actors, including scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders, as necessary. This involves:

  • using a transparent process for participation and following strict procedures for declaring, verifying, and addressing conflicts of interest

  • engaging all the necessary scientific expertise across disciplines to address the issue at hand

  • giving explicit consideration to whether and how to engage non-scientific experts and civil society stakeholders in framing and/or developing advice

  • implementing effective procedures for the timely exchange of information and co-ordination with different national and international counterparts.

3. Produce advice that is sound, unbiased and legitimate. Such advice should:

  • be based on the best available scientific evidence

  • explicitly assess and communicate scientific uncertainties

  • be preserved from political (and other vested-interest group) interference

  • be generated and used in a transparent and accountable manner.

These principles provide a useful checklist for governments seeking to optimise their scientific advisory processes as the emergency response to COVID-19 moves to a more deliberative process in which the formulation of longer-term policies will demand the best available evidence.

Countries have various systems for providing science advice to policy makers in times of crisis, involving different ministries, scientific institutions, and permanent or ad hoc scientific committees. There is also variation in countries’ capacity to develop and provide scientific evidence on the spread of COVID-19, and to provide evidence on the likely effectiveness of different policy interventions. Leveraging pertinent scientific knowledge requires engagement with different disciplines, including natural and social sciences and humanities. There are important lessons to be learned from previous epidemics, such as SARS or MERS.

At the international level, the World Health Organization (WHO) is the intergovernmental body responsible for monitoring and co-ordinating the response to global pandemics of infectious diseases. The WHO has its own science advisory mechanisms, and releases data and advice for all countries. Intergovernmental groups such as the G7 and G20 have also made science-based declarations in response to COVID-19, as have several public health monitoring and co-ordination structures in Europe and other regions.

The attention that countries pay to these international mechanisms varies considerably and is partly a function of their own national scientific capacity. Most OECD countries, for example, have “preferred” bilateral and multilateral partners with whom they share scientific advice. Underpinning all of these mechanisms are a variety of international research networks that collect and exchange data and models on the COVID-19 outbreak to understand its effects on societies.

Policy actions should inspire trust across the science community, policy makers and the public. Although trust in politics and trust in science are often aligned, there are also a significant number of citizens who normally have much more confidence in scientists than in politicians. Adhering to the aforementioned principles and conditions for science advisory processes can help ensure overall trust during the current crisis. However, promoting trust among different advisors and users of scientific data and advice is also a longer-term challenge. It requires appropriate support, mandates and incentives at the national level, and mechanisms for building mutual understanding and trusted networks at the international level. Openness and transparency concerning the data and information that underpins scientific advice is especially critical, and can be bolstered through open science and legal frameworks and agreements for data sharing.

The scientific evidence informing policy responses to COVID-19 is currently incomplete and changing rapidly, posing real challenges for the scientific community. In this environment, consensus is difficult to achieve, and communicating uncertainties and alternative views to the public could potentially undermine trust in scientific advice and policies. Yet governments have also been criticised for not providing rapid access to the primary scientific data and models that underpin their decision making, underscoring the importance of transparency even in an uncertain environment. Overall, the public appears to appreciate and understand carefully communicated uncertainties and potential scenarios. At the same time, authorities should exercise caution when communicating about potential scientific or medical breakthroughs, and rely on respected experts to explain scientific uncertainties. Scientists and crisis managers should work together to gather, verify and communicate information through social media.

Effective and trustworthy science advice processes should:

  • Have a clear remit, with defined roles and responsibilities for its various actors.

  • Involve the relevant actors, including scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders, as necessary.

  • Produce advice that is sound, unbiased and legitimate.

To build capacity to provide advice, countries should:

  • Build national mechanisms for scientific advice based on existing institutional structures, with integrated processes for quality assurance and communication.

  • Structure, record, systemise, preserve and disseminate knowledge generated during crises to allow for mutual learning.

  • Work with the international community to assist interested countries (and especially low-income countries) in developing their domestic systems for providing and utilising scientific advice in crises.

To enhance international co-operation on science advice, countries should:

  • Share details of domestic and international contact points responsible for co-ordinating scientific advice during crises.

  • Strengthen existing frameworks for the exchange of data and information during crises, and develop new frameworks as necessary. These frameworks can play an important role in developing common standards and protocols for data exchange and access.

  • Consider international science networks as part of the infrastructure for crisis response and ensure rapid access to contingency funding in order to strengthen their effectiveness.

To promote mutual understanding and trust, countries should:

  • Maintain openness and transparency concerning the data that underpin scientific advice.

  • Build mutual understanding between crisis managers and providers of scientific advice through regular interactions.

  • Embed the public communication of scientific advice as part of broader crisis management communication and international co-ordination strategies.

  • Clearly define responsibility for public communication of scientific advice in crisis response situations; for transnational crises, those responsible for communication in one country should liaise with their relevant counterparts in other countries.

Further reading

OECD (2020), “OECD Survey on Science and Innovation Policy Responses to Coronavirus (Covid19)”, web page, OECD, Paris, https://stip.oecd.org/Covid.html.

OECD (2020), “Strategic crisis management”, web portal, OECD, Paris, www.oecd.org/gov/risk/crisis-management.htm.

OECD (2018) Scientific Advice During Crises: Facilitating Transnational Co-operation and Exchange of Information, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264304413-en.

OECD (2015), “Scientific advice for policy making: the role and responsibility of expert bodies and individual scientists”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Paper, No. 21, https://doi.org/10.1787/5js33l1jcpwb-en.

OECD (2015) The Changing Face of Strategic Crisis Management, OECD Reviews of Risk Management Policies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264249127-en.

OECD (2014), Recommendation of the Council on the Governance of Critical Risks, OECD, Paris, https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0405.

Contact

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