Can Politics ‘Follow the Science’?

By Luis Campos Ferreira

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many politicians, including the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have often adopted the mantra of “following the science.” However, after a year of policy u-turns, contradictory advice and, at times, blatant mistruths, including former President Trump’s suggestion to inject disinfectant into the blood stream, this mantra seems to have fallen short of reality. For the last fourteen months, the relationship between science and politics has been put under the spotlight, revealing a marriage of principles and ideas seeped in tensions and competing interests. Idyllic assumptions about the objectivity of science and evidence and its role in policy-making have now been challenged. Within that challenge, we can find a more nuanced understanding of the capabilities and uncertainties of science, and its complex relationship to politics, and gain an understanding as to why “following the science” is often at times harder than it seems.

Operating at different speeds

In an ideal world, scientists are responsible for bringing evidence and facts to the table, while policy-makers shoulder the burden of making appropriate political decisions. However, such a clear-cut division of responsibility is rarely a reality. There are many reasons for this, but one that has been incredibly evident for the last fourteen months [PS1] is that science and politics operate on two different time frames. The former moves slowly, requiring time for hypothesis-testing and research, whereas the latter moves at a breakneck speed, adapting quickly to the ever-changing opinions and needs of the electorate. As a consequence, politics often raises questions that science has not yet had time to find answers to. This is what we saw at the beginning of 2020 when scientists and politicians alike were unsure about the effectiveness of masks, first downplaying their utility to then stressing their importance. The same could be said for what we are seeing now with the never-ending news stories surrounding the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

The reality is that science exists within a degree of uncertainty, particularly within the context of a pandemic; a new unexplored pathogen means circumstances and information change incredibly quickly, new systems of knowledge are created and outdated regulations are replaced, all in real-time. This uncertainty cannot be avoided, but it is one that policy-makers struggle to navigate in the political realm, often at the cost of scientific credibility. There is already evidence, per an LSE research paper, [PS1] that public trust in scientists and vaccines is likely to be damaged by COVID-19. This is no one’s fault per se, but rather a sign that we should reconsider our expectations of science and embrace that science is a continuous process of discovery.

The difference between an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’

Another source of tension at the heart of the science-politics dynamic is that just because science informs us on what something is, it does not mean that policymakers know what we ought to do about it. In other words, even if there is consensus on the science, policy-makers may disagree on what political decisions are the most appropriate. Scientists can certainly choose to make recommendations—the difference between an honest broker and an issue advocate—but policy-makers can also choose to ignore them. Scientists can warn against second-waves, Christmas relaxation rules and the premature opening of schools, but whether, or when, policy-makers decide to adopt these judgements is another story. This is especially true when one considers the competing economic and political priorities that politicians face; a Social Science & Medicine report demonstrates how in the UK government response to COVID-19, scientific evidence was just one of many factors that shaped policy proposals and decisions. After all, public funding and government policies do not exist within a vacuum. Nonetheless, these varying priorities are why even when we have the appropriate science, it does not necessarily mean that ‘good’ policy will be produced from it.

The role of science in our society is changing in front of our eyes. In the face of greater global threats like pandemics and climate change, scientists are increasingly being expected by policy-makers to contribute more directly to the needs of society; the creation of organizations like UK Research and Innovation is a testament to this. Science seems to be more than up for the task, however, perhaps we ought to be more realistic about what science can and cannot do. We must embrace the fact that science needs time to produce credible evidence, and even when the evidence is there, it does not mean that good policy-making will come out of it. Often, the distance between truth and power is a lot wider than we’d like to admit. 

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