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Opinion

The Covid-19 recovery: whose evidence will count?

Published on 2 December 2020

Image of James Georgalakis

James Georgalakis

Director of Communications and Impact

The Covid-19 Pandemic has highlighted the contested nature of research and the politics of knowledge. As we start the journey to recovery, there are important lessons for how we better connect evidence to policy.

Coinciding with news of a successful Covid-19 vaccine trial, IDS announced two programmes to support the recovery of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities in low- and middle-income countries. These announcements followed a recent report by IDS that found the true impact of the pandemic extends far beyond health to every aspect of life. Hardest hit by socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 are groups already marginalised and excluded before the crisis. While it may seem too soon to shift from the immediate public health response to the pandemic, we need research into the long-term recovery to apply the lessons from today.

The politics of evidence in a pandemic

Wherever you are experiencing the current health emergency you will have witnessed the contested nature of research. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, politicians globally have scrambled to demonstrate their policies are ‘following the science’. Meanwhile, researchers have become social media celebrities by providing commentary on all that they see as faulty with the public health response. The desire to appear committed to marrying policy with science has prompted one of the first announcements from US President-Elect, Joe Biden, to be that he would set up a Covid-19 task force of top scientific experts and public health officials.

But, as we’ve learned, supposedly objective, evidence-based decision making on lockdowns, track and trace, fiscal packages or vaccination production and distribution, appears to produce both winners and losers.  Within minutes of Pfizer’s vaccine announcement arguments began on social media around who should get priority – the clinically vulnerable, those that care for them, the young or those who belong to the most socio-economic excluded groups. Even when scientific advice appears evidence-based, balanced and rigorous, it may not always recommend popular or politically easy solutions that are beyond contestation.

Whose knowledge counts the most?

The Covid-19 health crisis has reinforced that power dynamics sit at the heart of how evidence is produced, used (and abused) in response to policy dilemmas. How we understand a problem, like the socio-economic impact of lockdowns, is shaped by our understanding of the world and our concern for different societal, economic or environmental outcomes. This in turn shapes how evidence is produced and engaged with.

This is bought to life when we consider how government scientific advisory services operate, such as the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). Their independent status means they do not get to shape or prioritise these requests for analysis and are not directly involved in how subsequent policy decisions are made. We do not ask scientists to choose between who gets vaccinated first or which region goes into lockdown but we do expect their evidence to inform those decisions.

In reality, there is an opaque interaction between evidence and policy defined by socio-cultural and political factors that determine whose evidence is seen as most relevant, authoritative and legitimate. This is where the broader policy discourse comes into play, in which dominant narratives which each appear to favour some understandings of the Pandemic over others, rise and fall on the agenda.

Research policy networks that shape policy discourse

For every government announcement that draws on a body of evidence, there are opposing narratives that emerge from public health communities and are promoted on media and social media. These communities or networks are made up of emergent groups of public health officials and scientists that coalesce around particular types of evidence. Clinicians, virologists, behavioural scientists, economists and even historians, find themselves at the centre of debates and in turn, can appear to present themselves as speaking on behalf of the wider community to which they ostensibly belong. Yet, these academic disciplines and professions are far from homogenous and individuals will inevitably place more emphasis on issues and evidence that speak to their values and interests.

Research and policy networks bring like-minded people together, in the same way as our social media feeds produce endless likes for our posts. The issue is that this can mean certain voices are excluded from critical debates that shape policy narratives as some groups gain more leverage than others.

We witnessed this during the less publicised UK response to Ebola in West Africa. Network analysis showed how the biomedical community was deeply embedded into the Government’s advisory bodies compared to anthropologists who had to work hard to bring the lived experiences of people directly suffering from Ebola into the formulation of policy. Most notably, African researchers were almost entirely absent from the network of institutions and individuals providing advice to the UK’s mission to Sierra Leone. We must learn from this and develop inclusive responses to the long-term impacts of Covid.

Covid-19 recovery relies on research and policy inclusivity

The encouraging trend from the research programmes already emerging to tackle the longer-term impact of Covid-19 around the world is their emphasis on collaboration and wider bodies of knowledge. Donors expect networks of academics, policy actors and the communities and the governments they partner with, to co-generate research that tackles head on the power dynamics that exist around engaging evidence with policy.

One example is The Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO) new Covid-19 Collective, coordinated by IDS, which brings together in its first round of funding eight diverse research organisations working globally on governance, social development and inclusion, conflict, and the humanitarian impacts of Covid-19. From the outset, the programme will explore people’s lived experiences of the crisis and identify the inclusive equitable partnerships and the channels through which the evidence can be generated and connected into national and international responses.

Alongside, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), has embedded a knowledge translation service led by IDS within its Social and Economic Response and Recovery Covid-19 (SERRC) programme. This will look at synergies and learning across the diverse portfolio of social science research responding to Covid-19 across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Policy relevant learning will be grounded in specific local contexts and communities experiences of widening inequalities, deepening poverty, insecurity and poor governance.

Building forward differently together

The fundamental lesson of science in health emergencies is that both researchers and policy partners need to explicitly address the tendency for some types of knowledge to be valued more greatly due to power dynamics and social and political norms.  While the challenges of conflicting evidence or the political nature of research in a crisis cannot be eliminated, we can seek to rebuild trust in workable research policy partnerships.

Away from the media scrutiny of contested epidemiological data or the winners and losers around specific public health interventions, there is a long game to be played in which the design of research and policy engagement programmes prioritises the most vulnerable in our societies. The key test of evidence generated around Covid-19’s long terms effects will be the degree to which it has been co-produced with those most deeply affected and in partnership with those that need to take action.

James Georgalakis is Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). He is also convenor of the IDS professional development course ‘Shaping Policy with Evidence’.

A shorter version of this blog was first published in Research Fortnight.

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