This paper investigates whether the inclusion of social scientists in the UK policy network that responded to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone (2013–16) was a transformational moment in the use of interdisciplinary research. In contrast to the existing literature, that relies heavily on qualitative accounts of the epidemic and ethnography, this study tests the dynamics of the connections between critical actors with quantitative network analysis.
This novel approach explores how individuals are embedded in social relationships and how this may affect the production and use of evidence. The meso-level analysis, conducted between March and June 2019, is based on the traces of individuals’ engagement found in secondary sources. Source material includes policy and strategy documents, committee papers, meeting minutes and personal correspondence. Social network analysis software, UCINet, was used to analyse the data and Netdraw for the visualisation of the network. Far from being one cohesive community of experts and government officials, the network of 134 people was weakly held together by a handful of super-connectors. Social scientists’ poor connections to the government embedded biomedical community may explain why they were most successful when they framed their expertise in terms of widely accepted concepts.
The whole network was geographically and racially almost entirely isolated from those affected by or directly responding to the crisis in West Africa. Nonetheless, the case was made for interdisciplinarity and the value of social science in emergency preparedness and response. The challenge now is moving from the rhetoric to action on complex infectious disease outbreaks in ways that value all perspectives equally.