The pandemic has shown that research, policy and power are inseparable, says James Georgalakis
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, politicians have strived to show that their policies are ‘following the science’. Almost the first announcement from US president-elect Joe Biden was the formation of a taskforce of scientists to tackle Covid-19.
However, Covid-19 has also exposed the power dynamics at the heart of how evidence is produced, used and sometimes abused, and highlighted the contested nature of research and the politics of knowledge.
Supposedly objective, evidence-based decisions—on lockdowns, test and trace, economic support and vaccine production—produce winners and losers. Arguments on who should be prioritised for vaccination flared up within minutes of Pfizer’s announcement of its trial results.
For every government announcement that draws on one body of evidence, opposing narratives emerge. Groups of public health officials and scientists coalesce around particular types of evidence.
Researchers commenting on the public health response have become social media celebrities. Clinicians, virologists, behavioural scientists, economists and even historians find themselves at the centre of debates and seeming to present themselves as speaking on behalf of the wider community.
Yet no academic discipline is homogeneous, and individuals inevitably emphasise issues and evidence that speak to their values, interests and concern for different societal, economic or environmental outcomes.
Shaping the recovery
As we recover from Covid-19, there are crucial lessons for how better to connect evidence to policy, and the power dynamics that shape this process.
Cultural and political factors determine whose evidence is relevant and legitimate. Research and policy networks bring like-minded people together, with certain voices excluded from critical debates and policymaking.
The UK’s response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa is one example. Biomedical researchers were embedded in the government’s advisory bodies, but anthropologists—with knowledge about the experiences of people suffering from Ebola and how community-led action could help curb the outbreak—had to work hard to be heard.
African researchers were almost absent from the network of institutions and individuals providing advice to the UK’s mission to Sierra Leone.
In sharp contrast, the research programmes emerging in response to Covid-19 show an emphasis on collaboration and local knowledge. Donors expect academics, policymakers, communities and governments to work together.
Many research agendas acknowledge that power dynamics exist around engaging evidence with policy and tackle them head-on. Tried-and-tested structures, networks and approaches for producing more engaged research have been harnessed and highlighted.
Examples include two research programmes involving the Institute for Development Studies aimed at supporting some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
One is the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s new Covid-19 Collective, coordinated by the IDS. This brings together research organisations working globally on governance, social development and inclusion, conflict, and the humanitarian impacts of Covid-19. It will explore people’s experiences of the crisis and identify how evidence can be connected to a response.
Similarly, the International Development Research Centre has incorporated a knowledge translation service led by IDS into its Social and Economic Response and Recovery from Covid-19 programme. This aims to produce policy-relevant knowledge and insights from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East that are grounded in specific local contexts and communities’ experiences.
The central lesson of science in health emergencies is that researchers and policy partners must address why some types of knowledge are valued more due to power dynamics and social and political norms.
The impact of the pandemic reaches into every aspect of life, and hits hardest those already marginalised. Away from the media focus on the winners and losers from public health interventions and biomedical breakthroughs, we must design research and policy engagement programmes that prioritise the most vulnerable in our societies.
The key test of the evidence generated by research into Covid-19’s long-term effects will be the degree to which it has been produced in collaboration with those most deeply affected and in partnership with those who need to take action. We can’t take conflict and politics out of how research is conducted and used during a crisis, but we can seek to build trust and partnerships.
James Georgalakis is director of communications and impact at the Institute of Development Studies
This article also appeared in Research Fortnight