The pandemic shows governments need to listen to scientists

In the months since the Wuhan outbreak in December 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of billions of people in nearly every country in the world. The coronavirus responsible for the disease has infected over 16 million people and caused the death of over 650,000 worldwide, making it the worst global public health emergency in contemporary history. In Europe, like in the rest of the world, governments have had to make very difficult decisions in response. National lockdowns have been imposed on the population of nearly every democracy in the continent, limiting people’s freedom to gather together for any kind of activity and bringing the economy to an abrupt halt. This is taking a heavy toll on people’s livelihood, not to mention their mental health; yet, with the notable exception of Sweden, the governments of European Union countries have not shied away from taking very serious lockdown measures. How did they know what they were supposed to do? How could they be sure that it would work?

At the time of the Black Death, a global plague pandemic which killed between 75 and 200 million people in the 14th century CE, leaders of European monarchies and national states turned to religious authorities for advice: why had God sent such a tremendous punishment and how could it be escaped? Many things have changed since then, and today government leaders are advised by expert scientists, including virologists, epidemiologists and immunologists, who study the behaviour of viruses, how they spread and how they infect the human body. With this knowledge, experts formulate essential public health advice, which informs the quick decision-making required in these times of emergency. Indeed, things have changed so much since the European Middle-Ages that even religious leaders today listen to scientists: the celebration of religious rituals all over the world, from Christian masses in Europe to communal prayer in the Middle East to Hindu pilgrimages in the Himalaya have been prohibited in order to avoid the spread of the virus. Not only that, but the hopes of billions of people around the world for a return to normality rest on the possibility that an effective vaccine may be rapidly developed. Advanced pharmaceutical companies and medical university departments in various European countries, in the US and in China are working around the clock to deliver a solution in record time.

The global pandemic, then, has once again highlighted how deep and wide-ranging the effect of science and technology is on our lives in the 21st century. Not only have they changed our daily lives, most recently through the many wonders of the digital revolution, but they help address some of the most pressing challenges faced by societies today: from ageing populations to epidemics; from the climate crisis to the management of nuclear waste; from surveillance and crime prevention to education. Yet, the people we elect to represent us in democracy are not, except in very few cases, scientists. Most policymakers are traditionally trained in law or economics, and these are the disciplines that drive their interests and decisions. However, today they are required to design policies and formulate laws in a world increasingly dominated by technology. Thus, to navigate the complex and technical world of science, one would expect governments and parliaments in democracies to avail themselves of advisory bodies which help in elucidating technical matters. Indeed, most European parliaments can rely on such an advisory body. To name just a few examples, the German Bundestag has an Office of Technology Assessment (TAB), the French parliament has the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (OPECST), while the Dutch can rely on the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). Importantly, the European Parliament itself as well as the other key EU institutions can boast a network of advisory bodies that provide high-quality independent advice on many issues. These advisory bodies vary in nature and composition across the different countries, according to their institutional environment and to the way they were originally created. In France, the OPECST is made up of members of National Assembly and the Senate so as to ensure proportional representation of all political groups; on the contrary, the German TAB is operated by an external institute belonging to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, although its steering body is a parliamentary committee dedicated to Research and Technology. Regardless of their make-up, these advisory bodies have one priority: to provide unbiased information to all Members of Parliament so that political decisions can be taken on the basis of better evidence. For example, the German TAB has recently published a report on pharmaceutical residues in drinking water, while the Dutch WRR has just put together a perspective on security in an interconnected world. These bodies don’t necessarily limit themselves to the hard sciences and their application, but often provide evidence-based on social science studies in disciplines such as economics, sociology and psychology.

Having established that in a world permeated by technology it is helpful to have experts advise policymakers on complex technical matters, it is worrying to note that a few major European democracies lack a service of technology assessment. Portugal, Spain and Italy all fall into this group. Although some may argue that a link exists between the lack of institutionalised science advice and the strong Catholic influence over these countries, I believe the reasons are to be found within the workings of the democratic institutions of these countries, which are highly politicised and bureaucratised. As noted by science advice experts Chris Tyler and Karen Akerlof in a Nature article last year, the two main secrets to successfully run a science advice unit are to ensure real bipartisanship is maintained and to offer value for money. In a country such as Italy, in which any institutional figure can be accused of pushing a personal political agenda and in which bureaucracy is far from being cost-efficient, the conditions are hardly favourable.

SPP Italy 2019 at the University of Cambridge

This was the main reason behind my idea to organise the first ever edition of Science, Policy and the Public in Italy (SPP Italy 2019), a conference held in Cambridge (UK) in the autumn of 2019. Coordinated by the Cambridge University Italian Society and the Association of Italian Scientists in the UK, the aim of the conference was to encourage a dialogue between Italian researchers in the UK and policymakers from Italy. The conference promoted a recent petition by a group of researchers and communication professionals called Scienza In Parlamento with the aim of creating a service of science advice to the Italian Parliament. The inspiration for this has come from a grassroots movement in Spain called Ciencia En El Parlamento, whose campaigning led the Spanish Congress of Deputies to approve the establishment of an independent scientific advisory office. Although the SPP Italy 2019 conference covered fascinating topics such as machine learning bias, animal testing and satellite-based infrastructure monitoring, and although the participating Members of Parliament committed to the idea of bringing more science into the Italian Parliament, the Scienza In Parlamento initiative has had limited success so far.

With the new wave of investments from the Recovery Fund, and with the renewed conviction that expert advice is essential to effectively tackle big challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, new efforts to establish independent scientific advisory bodies in the European countries that currently lack them may be more successful. It is true that in recent years a wave of skepticism towards experts has swept across the Western world. The latest example of this phenomenon is the US top advisor for the coronavirus emergency Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has received many personal threats because of his advice in favour of tough lockdown measures in response to COVID-19. However, surveys in countries such as Italy and Germany show that scientists are viewed favourably by the population, who trust them way more than they trust other professional figures such as journalists and politicians. As we find our way out of this global emergency, we know that the even greater challenges of economic stagnation and climate upheaval lie ahead of us. Using the best available empirical evidence to inform public policies will be essential to guarantee a decent and just future for all citizens of Europe and the world.