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The Promise of Science, Values and Pandemic Policy Decisions

April 17, 2020
By: 
Margaret A. Lemay
Independent Science Advisor
VISTA Science & Technology Inc.
Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Guelph

Unprecedented policy decisions, with risks and consequences that are largely unknown and unpredictable, are being made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Politicians, public health officials, and medical experts assure us that these decisions are being made based on evidence, and that measures to contain the pandemic are following the science. The promise of science—our expectation that science will solve our most critical and urgent challenges and guide us to a better future—has become a powerful force as we confront the uncertainties of the pandemic. We are expecting a lot from science in the global efforts to contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus and mitigate its impacts. Research efforts have been mobilized to generate scientific evidence about the virus, its behaviour in individuals and communities, the social interventions necessary to slow its spread and eventually stop it, and the technological innovations needed for testing, diagnosing, treating and vaccinating against it. And, we want the science FAST. But policy decisions are informed and shaped by more than scientific evidence. Values—the beliefs, priorities and ideals—that underpin our society and guide our behaviour are fundamental to effective public policy. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us very clearly the entangled relationship between values and science in the policy process.

Scientific evidence is an essential element of a well-functioning, credible policy process. But it is normally a result of a systematic, rigorous, incremental process, widely known as the scientific method. SARS-CoV-2 is an emerging pathogen in its earliest phases. The science or scientific evidence on SARS-CoV-2 is only just beginning to emerge. It is advancing and being adopted, without the rigorous checks and balances of the scientific method, at a pace and scale that would normally be unthinkable. SARS-CoV-2 is showing itself to be a truly novel organism, challenging our existing knowledge and general understanding of pandemics. What we thought we knew is being called into question. What we know is in constant flux. There is still so much that we don’t know.

The truth is, science rarely gives us complete and definitive answers, even when we have years of research and data. More often, scientific evidence is inconclusive. Science rarely gives up all its secrets, despite our hubris or hope in thinking otherwise. It is unlikely that science will ever reveal all of the mysteries of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. Yet, despite this uncertainty, as our most credible and reliable source of knowledge about the natural world, science has been profoundly successful in serving society and guiding us to brighter futures. And so, our faith in the promise of science appears to be well-founded. Nevertheless, scientific uncertainty leaves decision-makers with difficult choices about which inconclusive, incomplete, and inconsistent evidence should be used to guide and inform decisions. We begin to see the limits of the promise of science in policy-making. How do experts give advice and how do leaders make decisions in the face of such profound scientific uncertainty—when the promise of science appears to be failing to live up to our expectations?

To understand how science fits into policy decisions, it is important to recognize the role that values play in the decision-making process. Fundamentally, public policy decisions are value judgements—expressions of what we value as a society. Policy decisions are shaped and influenced by our beliefs, interests, and priorities. Values even play a role in science. The processes that scientists use to accept or reject scientific evidence and knowledge claims are guided and informed by values. It is generally believed that policy disputes can be resolved by facts or evidence, when in reality, most policy debates arise from conflicting values. Agreeing on shared or common values is often the most challenging aspect of the policy-making process.

Our shared values have been the driving force in our response to the pandemic: preserving life, protecting health and safety, ensuring economic stability, and maintaining individual freedoms, liberty, and financial security. Based on those values, science has guided and informed decisions around the appropriate actions needed to respond to the pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, those values were given relatively equal weight in shaping policy decisions and interventions. With increasing and evolving evidence about the virus, its potential impacts, and the effectiveness of various interventions, decision-makers have been forced to give greater weight to some values and less to others. Life and health and safety have taken on greater importance at the expense of our liberty, financial security, and economic stability in our struggle to contain the virus. In turn, the scientific evidence guiding and informing decisions has shifted to reflect the re-balancing of values. Throughout the pandemic, our fundamental values have remained constant. What we have seen is a shift in the importance of certain values and evidence. It is this co-evolving weighing of values and evidence that partially explains the initial response to the pandemic, which is facing some criticism for being too slow, as well as the differing pandemic strategies being implemented around the world.

Understanding the entangled and dynamic relationship between values, science, and policy may help us to make sense of what appear (in hindsight) to be decisions that were not based on evidence but, were in reality, responding to our shared values. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us very clearly that unimaginable policy decisions are possible when we are unified by shared values. Imagine what other social crises we could resolve with the power of shared values and the promise of science.

M. A. (Amy) Lemay, PhD

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