Is COVID-19 Ushering in a ‘Golden Age’ of Scientific Expertise in Policymaking?

Kat Smith

One of the many consequences of COVID-19 has been a renewed emphasis on the role of scientific experts in policymaking. For those of us committed to improving the use of evidence in policymaking, it is tempting to hope that we may be achieving a substantive step forward with efforts to ensure policy decisions are, if not evidence-based, then at least evidence-informed. When it comes to the visibility of scientific expertise, it certainly feels like we are in a very different era to the UK of 2016, when Conservative minister Michael Gove famously responded to an interview question by saying that he thought people in Britain had ‘had enough of experts’.

… we need to do much more to promote a democratically grounded approach to evidence use, in ways that make better use of a wider range of expertise

Yet pandemic-provoked government commitments to ‘follow the science’ are no guarantee that we are entering a golden era of evidence-informed policymaking. Indeed, the approach that policymakers in the UK have taken to scientific evidence, and scientific experts, during the pandemic may not even be desirable. Here, I outline four reasons to be hopeful, and four reasons be cautious, for those seeking to improve the use of evidence and expertise in policy. I close by reflecting on some of the opportunities there are to learn from the unique experiences of this pandemic, arguing that we need to do much more to promote a democratically grounded approach to evidence use, in ways that make better use of a wider range of expertise.

Four reasons to be hopeful

  1. The high policy profile of scientific evidence: The value of scientific research has rarely been more obvious to policymakers than it has in the past 18 months. Research has played a crucial role in helping UK policymakers respond to COVID-19, helping them to understand: how the virus spreads; the health, economic and social consequences of the virus and of policy response; and how it can be treated, tracked and potentially prevented. The value of scientific advice for pandemic policymaking was almost immediately apparent. Just a few weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described policy responses to COVID-19 as ‘guided by the science’. A few months later, an Institute of Government report reflected that Ministers were consistently keen to emphasise that they were ‘following the science’. These claims have persisted, despite mixed assessments of the extent to which the UK government has drawn on science and expertise, and public trust in science appears to remain relatively high in the UK, despite high infection and mortality rates. All this suggests we have strong foundations on which to build a better long-term relationship between evidence and policy.

  2. The high public profile of (some) experts: The crucial role of scientific research during the pandemic has contributed to the emergence of some high profile scientific experts who are skilled at translating the constantly evolving evidence-base for policy, media and public audiences. From those holding high profile government roles, such as Chief Medical Officers and Chief Scientific Advisers, to the senior academic experts who have taken on advisory roles, such as Linda Bauld, John Edmunds, Neil Ferguson, Susan Michie, David Spiegelhalter and Devi Sridhar, to those who have opted to provide more arms-length advice via Independent SAGE, the media and Twitter, such as Anthony Costello, Trish Greenhalgh and Christina Pagel.

    Being able to explain the societal and policy implications of emerging data and evidence for audiences who do not all have postgraduate scientific or statistical training is a distinct skill from being able to use this training to gather and interpret data. The current pandemic has provided a platform for individuals who have the relatively rare ability to do both and, in so doing, seems likely to be raising the societal profile and accessibility of scientific evidence and expertise. If we want to maintain this interest, and counter misinformation, then this genre of scientific capability is likely to be essential.

  3. A renewed spotlight on social and economic inequalities: The unequal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of the virus itself and the various policy responses, have brought a renewed media and public interest in social and economic inequalities. As well as shouldering a higher burden of death and illness, many of those in positions of financial precarity have been pushed to the brink and beyond. Meanwhile, a wealthy elite has accumulated shockingly high increases in wealth by betting on the recovery of particular firms, while a broader set of households with high levels of disposable incomes have managed to increase their savings during the lockdowns, having had fewer options for spending their disposable income.

    There is growing evidence that the British population are unhappy with these inequalities. The simultaneous emergence of a UK arm of the Black Lives Matters movement with evidence that black and minority ethnic groups have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infection and relatively worse health outcomes has, at the same time, shone a spotlight on Britain’s ethnic inequalities. All of this presents an opportunity for evidence and expertise concerning inequalities to gain public and policy traction.

  4. The potential to discuss previously ‘off the table’ policies: During the course of research exploring the impact of evidence about health inequalities on UK policy over the past 15 years, I consistently found that macro-level, structural policy responses (e.g. using policy levers to achieve more egalitarian distribution of wealth) were deemed so unpalatable (to policymakers and publics) that even researchers and policy actors who favoured them often saw little point in advocating their uptake. Consequently, even though many of the researchers and policymakers I spoke to were persuaded that there were structural causes to Britain’s health inequalities, they often put forward proposals that helped sustain ‘a ‘cargo cult’ of health behaviourism’. The dominance of this behavioural, individualised way of responding to health inequalities did not always appear to be grounded in empirical assessments of public views. However, the roots of this way of thinking can be traced back to the policy paradigm firmly embedded by the Thatcher-led governments of 1979-1990, in which the role of government policy in tackling many social and economic issues was limited to issuing guidance and pushing individuals to achieve behavioural changes. In the New Labour era (1997-2010), the state’s role shifted into setting targets and mechanisms for performance assessment but, still, the idea that governments might need to take more substantive policy action to tackle and prevent social problems remained unpopular. Since 2010, the creation of the ‘nudge’ unit within the UK government (under the Cameron-led Coalition government) further cemented the policy influence of behavioural science.

… the policy responses to COVID-19 could create spaces in which we can have evidence-informed conversations about policy interventions that were, until recently, ‘off the table’

In the face of a global pandemic, however, we have witnessed the structural power that still resides with policymakers working at the national level. All of the national level governments in the UK have introduced measures to tackle the pandemic that were previously deemed unimaginable. This opens up the potential to ask questions about why similar interventions are routinely ruled out in ‘normal’ times, given that inequalities are responsible for even greater – more sustained – levels of death and illness. In the UK (and other countries such as New Zealand and Finland), the Wellbeing Economy Alliance are framing the pandemic as ‘an opportunity to transform economies and societies in radically positive directions’, noting the lack of popular support for a ‘return to the way things were’. In the face of growing inequalities and a climate emergency, the policy responses to COVID-19 could create spaces in which we can have evidence-informed conversations about policy interventions that were, until recently, ‘off the table’.

Four reasons to be cautious

  1. The narrowness of scientific expertise gaining public and policy traction: Much of the expertise, and many of the experts, gaining public and policy traction over the past 18 months have emanated from biomedical and statistical disciplines and from scientific advisers inside the policy process. Although social scientists are better represented on some of advisory groups than others, the continuing supremacy of behavioural thinking is unmistakeable (e.g. a key advisory group is the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, dominated by psychologists and behavioural experts). Advisors bringing more societal and structural perspectives (including, perhaps surprisingly, public health experts) are, while not completely absent, vastly outnumbered on these advisory groups. Appearances also suggest many of these experts share a relatively narrow cultural and demographic background. Put bluntly, although substantive in number, Britain’s current scientific superstars appear to be predominantly well-off, white scientists from high-income Anglophone settings who have trained in disciplines that promote broadly positivist or behavioural epistemologies.

    Beyond this, the more influential advisers appear to be those who understand, and are willing to follow, ‘the rules of the game’ (i.e. those working as policy insiders who are willing to limit criticism, at least in public). As Cairney reflects, in the UK context, ‘guided by ‘the science’ means ‘our scientists,’ and usually a small group of government scientific advisors.’ This relatively narrow set of experts almost inevitably results in a relatively narrow set of scientific advice, which has been a key criticism of the UK’s approach. Missing from this (or, at least, much less well featured) are social science voices that bring societal and structural perspectives to understanding the pandemic and policy responses. This is an importance gap given, as Pickersgill and Smith argue: ‘Many of the questions that policymakers […] are dealing with in relation to COVID-19 have significant social, economic, and ethical dimensions’.

    The problems caused by drawing on a narrow set of expertise are significant. Ensuring front-line workers had access to PPE – an area in which the UK did not perform well – immediately required advisors who understood procurement, supply chain management and logistics, and voices who recognised that ‘front-line’ workers were not only doctors and nurses working in hospitals but also care home staff, retailers, cleaners, porters, social workers, food processing staff, teachers, midwives, delivery drivers and so on. To avoid substantial increases in social and education inequalities and worsening mental health among children and young people – an other area with a concerning prognosis – policy decisions around school closures needed to be informed by a broad array of expertise (e.g. social workers, child psychologists, childhood behavioural experts, ethicists, teachers, sociologists of education, families and intersectional inequalities) as well as by those trying to model and understand the impact of school closures on viral transmission and hospital admissions.

    To be well-positioned to overcome the unequal impacts of COVID-19, including the wealth of misinformation about COVID-19 and available vaccines – yet another area in which the UK is struggling – scientific experts in the UK needed to represent (or at least to be drawing on) a much more diverse demographic spectrum. Instead, we saw 10 Black academics calling for a review of the UKRI’s systems and processesafter it emerged that none of the principal investigators on Covid-19 grants awarded for research into death rates among people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds were Black’ and claims that working class voices were being routinely side-lined.

  2. A lack of democratic engagement: While scientific advice can help decision-makers working to tackle major societal problems, such as pandemics and climate change, to identify potentially effective policy proposals, they also need to attain sufficient democratic legitimacy for proposals to be viable. Here, the UK’s current approach seems especially wanting; although there have been multiple efforts, for more than two decades, to promote the use of evidence in policymaking (on the assumption evidence-based policies are more effective), and multiple initiatives to promote stakeholder/public engagement (on the assumption engagement enhances democratic legitimacy), surprisingly little work considers how evidence, publics and policies interact.

    The importance of this gap was evident from the early stages of the UK’s pandemic policy response when early modelling of COVID-19 reportedly excluded policy responses that were later pursued because they were not initially deemed publicly acceptable. The need to understand (and listen to) public beliefs, experiences and preferences, and to consider how these are shaped by (and have the potential to shape) research and policy should come as no surprise since this kind of intelligence has been previously identified as important in efforts to tackle infectious disease outbreaks. As Rubin and colleagues note, ‘The public’s compliance is essential for response efficacy, as well as enhancing the democratic legitimacy of the pandemic response’.

    Yet, reflecting the narrowness of the scientific expertise on show in the UK, policymakers have often seemed surprisingly unwilling to consider what they might learn from publics or from other contexts. Without this kind of insight, policymakers inevitably struggle to understand or respond to the public pushbacks against COVID-19 prevention efforts. Moreover, and especially in the context of the narrow social backgrounds of the UK’s ruling elites, without democratic engagement in discussions around evidence and policy, the unequal impacts of the pandemic are unlikely to be mitigated and inequalities will continue to worsen.

  3. Confusion surrounding the boundary between science and politics: Although claims to be ‘guidance by the science’ may sound reassuring, such accounts of policymaking risk muddying the distinction between the decision-making responsibilities of elected governments and the scientific advice of independent experts. As Max Weber famously reflected in Science as a Vocation, the role of science is not to tell us (or our political leaders) what we (or they) should do, or how we should live, but rather to make more meaningful choices possible. Yet, faced with pressure to make unpopular decisions, obscuring this distinction may be strategically and symbolically useful to decision-makers but potentially damaging to the credibility of science. For if policies ‘based on science’ are unpopular, or if they turn out to be ineffective or to have unintended consequences (here, Rubin et al remind us that experts are notoriously bad at forecasting), the public pushback may focus on scientists rather than decision-makers, eroding the authority of science.

    This explains both why some of the most high profile scientific advisors have sought to emphasise the distinction between providing scientific advice and making policy decisions. Longer-term efforts to strengthen and improve the use of evidence in policy depend on the ability of scientists and other academic experts to maintain public credibility and authority, even where this expertise has informed potentially unpopular or unsuccessful policy decisions. This, in turn, requires efforts to ensure that academic work is sufficiently independent of government policy not to cast scientists as decision-makers or to result in academics self-censoring and telling policymakers what they think they want to hear. Yet, as the UK’s research funding landscape increasingly prioritises research that is responsive to policy needs, we are witnessing an ever-smaller gap between the expertise of those working at universities and those based at think tanks and private consultancies.

  4. The ‘emergency’ framing of the pandemic policy response: While pandemic policymaking has certainly enabled policies (such as the furlough scheme) that were previously unimaginable in contemporary Britain, these efforts have consistently been framed as one-off policy responses to an unprecedented emergency. If unchallenged, this framing may quickly shut down opportunities to seriously consider the kinds of transformative policy proposals that evidence on tackling inequalities and climate change suggests are required.

What might a more democratically-engaged approach to supporting evidence and expertise in policymaking look like?

It would be unreasonable to assume that the higher profile of scientific expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic will last beyond the immediate pandemic crisis. Indeed, the narrow profile of scientific expertise at play, the fallibility of scientific evidence and the limited democratic engagement all mean that sustaining this approach is unlikely to be desirable. Yet, this experience does offer opportunities to learn and to reflect on the kinds of evidence and expertise policymaking might benefit from. Pre-pandemic research on evidence use was often constrained by a focus on particular areas of policy, or specific contexts, stymying efforts to understand, and learn from, different ‘cultures of evidence’.

Both the devolved nature of policymaking in the UK and the global character of the pandemic offer opportunities for insightful comparative analysis. Given the complexity and seriousness of the challenges currently facing humans, we need to examine how different governments approached and drew on the complex array of potentially relevant evidence and expertise and how these decisions shaped policy outcomes. The inevitable uncertainty and fallibility of scientific evidence means we also need to explore how different governments sought to frame the role of science and expertise in policymaking and to understand how this, in turn, shapes public trust in science. Finally, if we can use the experience of pandemic policymaking to identify means of enhancing democratic engagement in conversations about evidence-informed policy options to address major societal challenges (recognising that publics are multiple and unequal), we will be contributing to addressing a much longer-standing impasse between ‘science’ and ‘politics’.

Kat Smith is Professor of Public Health Policy in the School of Social Work & Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde. Her main research interests are the dynamics of policy change and the relationships between evidence, expertise, policy and practice, particularly for issues relating to public health and inequalities. She held the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2014.

Header image credit: Steve Rotman


Smith, Kat 2021. ‘Is COVID-19 Ushering in a ‘Golden Age’ of Scientific Expertise in Policymaking?’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (3):