COVID-19: Lessons from the relationship between science and policy

Science and the Covid-19 crisis


The Covid-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the global health science community. Rapid requests for scientific evidence about the virus have spread and health scientists have become more publicly prominent. Advisory councils have been set up (such as in France and South Africa) and renowned scientists have directly advised governments (such as in the UK and Kenya).

But the reality is more nuanced than this. To reuse the words of the UNEP Chief Scientist at an Adaptation Futures webinar in April, there have been some “disconnections between the science and political decisions.” Reflecting the differences in timeframes and priorities between the need to gather solid evidence on one hand and the need to make immediate decisions on the other, conflicts have emerged with decisions opposing the scientific advice (such as in the US), scientists being sacked (such as in Kenya) and even the World Health Organization being challenged for its handling of the crisis.

What is clear is that the relation between science and policy seems to have reached a crossroads, challenging ever more the role that science plays or should play for society.

During the Petersberg Climate Dialogue XI in April, the German Federal Environment Minister stated that “we are learning to listen to the scientists.” Will this changed relationship provide opportunities for more concerted climate action?


Science and the climate change crisis


Many parallels have been drawn between the health crisis and the climate crisis. On social media, the climate change community has joyfully compared the new prominent role for science given by policy-makers with the IPCC, wondering if the same weight could be given to climate science informing policy.

Not long ago, local policy-makers asked me what the research community could bring to policy in the context of climate change, a question that somewhat surprised me.

Having worked in a research environment for over five years as part of UMFULA, an applied research project focusing on co-producing climate information for adaptation in vulnerable countries in central and southern Africa, the answer to this question was very clear to me.


UMFULA and how science can inform policy


UMFULA, and its wider Future Climate for Africa programme, has at its core the objective of improving science in terms of climate processes and projections and climate impacts on the African continent to inform policy for more sustainable development and greater resilience to climate change.

For five years, we have worked in partnership with policy and decision-makers in Malawi and Tanzania. By better understanding their needs, we have been more effective in producing information that is useful and potentially useable in the sectors of water, energy, food and biodiversity. In Malawi we co-developed future scenarios of water availability and discussed management options in terms of infrastructure operation and water allocation, taking into account demand from different sectors.

As a result of the trust built through this process, we had the opportunity to inform national policy processes in Malawi, providing advice to the government on climate information, participating in the National Technical Committee on Climate Change and providing inputs to draft policy documents.


Revisiting the relationship between science and policy for climate change


While considerable efforts have been put into this collaboration with policy-makers, and progress has certainly been made – after five years UMFULA has still only reached the tip of the iceberg.

One could ask, what would it take to strengthen how science and policy interact? The research community has touched on the question, for example in the context of the IPCC and its various reports requested by and targeted at policy-makers via the UNFCCC. Both parties need to play their part to open the way for a renewed collaboration.


What can the science community do?


To better engage with and be relevant to policy-makers, Howarth and Painter (2016) highlight how important it is to have research outputs that are clear, succinct, more accessible and contextualized. Enabling this requires open channels of communication between researchers and policy-makers. Ways of engagement have been discussed at length within FCFA and in particular various co-production methods have been tested. UMFULA has also explored how to make climate information useful, useable and used in policy and practice in the sub-Saharan context. More on this will be published later this year.

But perhaps before engagement can take place, there needs to be a conversation about the role of research in policy. In this context, Hulme (2016) distinguishes the “curiosity-driven research” from the “research oriented towards decision support for the large and diverse constituency of stakeholders” such as in support of climate services. He also adds a word of caution to those embarking on the latter in the context of the IPCC, not to think naively they could make a difference to the world of politics.

Curiosity-driven research is not connected to policy priorities and demand but instead explores unchartered territories, can lead to innovation and ultimately make important breakthroughs for society.

Policy-oriented research doesn’t always impact policy development, especially as there are many considerations policy-makers have to work with. But a first step would be to recognize that contribution to policy development takes many forms and that it is not always apparent or immediate.

There is value in collaborating with policy and practice not just for society but for research itself if our minds move away from the linear approach of science into policy to a mutual learning exercise on a more equal footing.


What can the policy community do?


The case of recognition can also be made to the policy community. Recognising what science has to offer is key, not only information on temperature changes or weather extremes but also solutions-oriented knowledge such as on climate-resilient development pathways or poverty reduction. Interdisciplinary programmes, of which FCFA is one of many examples, attempt to address the difficulty of making science more applicable in a complex socio-economic system.

Recognition is also about what science cannot bring. Climate change, like Covid-19, is a highly complex, often called wicked problem, and it faces a significant level of uncertainty. Rainfall projections have been a challenge for example, but there are many areas of agreement in climate models that show the scale of the crisis we are facing and open doors for concrete actions. But not being 100% sure of exactly what will happen in the future is no excuse for inaction. There are also robust methods to work with uncertainty, as we have done in UMFULA. Uncertainty has never been an obstacle to act and make decisions in other sectors and as we have seen with the Covid-19 crisis. It should also not be a reason for inaction on climate change.


Preserving human lives


The current health crisis has taught us many lessons but is also giving an opportunity to rethink how science and policy can work together to address more effectively a global crisis. Preserving human lives has been at the top of all countries’ political agendas for the last two months. Addressing climate change is equally about preserving human lives, as well as livelihoods and our economy. Calls and examples of collaboration and solidarity have multiplied. We have shown we can do it with the Covid-19, it is time we do it with climate change.

This article was written by Estelle Rouhaud, previously at the London School of Economics and UMFULA Project Manager. It is available from the Future Climate for Africa website. 

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