A new international research project led by a University of Colorado Boulder professor is studying how governments used — or didn’t use — scientific advice and policy in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The goal is not to look at public health outcomes, said principal investigator and professor Roger Pielke Jr., but to find out what role scientists and advisory boards played in shaping the coronavirus responses of various countries.
In looking at the United States, researchers will dive into the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force and whether it’s an advisory body or a political body. Why, for example, wasn’t a committee of pandemic experts from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine at the forefront of the federal government’s response?
“The reason we’re doing this is we think it’s really important to have independent, nongovernmental, nonadvisory people with expertise in these areas taking a close look and calling them like they see them,” Pielke said. “It’s no surprise to anyone that in our time there’s a lot of issues involving science that are really contested and political. That’s a good reason to want policy experts to dive into those issues and ask what is actually going on here.”
Project collaborators include the International Network for Government Science Advice, headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand, and teams of researchers in the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Sweden and South Korea. No one on the team has had a role in advising their governments, Pielke said, to avoid conflicts of interest.
In all, the project — named the Evaluation of Science Advice in a Pandemic Emergency — is aiming to work with researchers in 19 countries as well as the World Health Organization. It’s being funded by a $155,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant with the goal of making the research findings available soon.
“My hope is we bust our butts and get some results so we can actually feed into the response of the pandemic and it makes a difference,” Pielke said. “Policy-makers don’t have to take advice, but I want to make sure they’re getting good advice.”
Pielke and the project’s collaborators will be digging into documents, interviewing people and putting together timelines of who did what and what happened when.
“It’s a pretty straightforward methodology we’re going to apply across the board,” he said. “What was the playbook in place in December 2019, and starting in January, what happened? Did it follow the playbook, did it deviate, and if so, why? Why did we throw out everything we put into place and go a different direction?”
The story of the pandemic in the U.S. is similar to that of the U.K., said project collaborator James Wilsdon, director of the U.K.-based Research on Research Institute. Early predictions showed both countries weathering the pandemic fairly well.
“On paper, both countries seemed to have lots of things working in their favor,” Wilsdon said in a statement. “They had very strong, well-established, science-advice institutions and plans in place. But as it has played out, neither country has performed well.”
Researchers will also have to keep context in mind when looking at what worked for different countries in responding to the pandemic, Pielke said. Just because something worked in Japan, for example, doesn’t mean it would have worked in the United States. Pielke pointed to how Middle East Respiratory Syndrome influenced how the Japanese public views pandemics in general, as well as pushback after the Fukushima nuclear disaster when it appeared science advisors were too closely tied to politics.
“Whatever our team turns up in Tokyo, we can’t just take that and move it over to Sweden or the United States, because context matters,” Pielke said.
While research teams are digging into documents, they’re also looking for people involved with the pandemic response to come out of the woodwork to provide information.
“If they’re not willing to go on the record, hopefully they can point us in the right direction,” Pielke said.