Evidence & Policy
A journal of research, debate and practice

How did UK policymaking in the COVID-19 response use science? Evidence from scientific advisers

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  • 1 University of Liverpool, UK
  • | 2 University of Oxford, UK
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Background

Responses to COVID-19 have invested heavily in science. How this science was used is therefore important. Our work extends existing knowledge on the use of science in the pandemic by capturing scientific advisers’ experiences in real time.

Aims and objectives

Our aim was to present generalisable messages on key qualifications or difficulties involved in speaking of ‘following the science’.

Methods

Ninety-three interviews with UK scientific advisors and government officials captured their activities and perceptions during the pandemic in real time. We also examined Parliamentary Select Committee transcripts and government documents. This material was analysed for thematic content.

Findings and discussion

(1) Many scientists sought guidance from policymakers about their goals, yet the COVID-19 response demonstrated the absence of a clear steer, and a tendency to change course quickly; (2) many scientists did not want to offer policy advice, but rather to provide evidence; and (3) a range of knowledge informed the UK’s pandemic response: we examine which kinds were privileged, and demonstrate the absence of clarity on how government synthesised the different forms of evidence being used.

Conclusions

Understanding the reasons for a lack of clarity about policy goals would help us better understand the use of science in policy. Realisation that policy goals sometimes alter rapidly would help us better understand the logistics of scientific advice. Many scientists want their evidence to inform policy rather than determine the options selected. Since the process by which evidence leads to decisions is obscure, policy cannot be said to be evidence-based.

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