Science, Policy & Pandemics: The Principles and Practice of Decision Making in Government

29 May 2020


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

What role does evidence play when the stakes are high, decisions are urgent, and the science is not settled?

As part of our series on Science, Policy and Pandemics, we explored the principles and practice of decision making in government during health emergencies, using the UK's response to Ebola, Novichok, and childhood obesity as case studies.

Listen to the discussion here:

Produced in partnership with Cambridge Infectious Diseases and the Cambridge Immunology Network, CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's series on science, policy and pandemics aims to answer questions about our understanding of the current pandemic, including the epidemiology, on what basis governments are making current decisions, how much confidence we can have in the knowledge models are producing, and how to manage the uncertainties involved in the present crisis.

In this episode, Dr Rob Doubleday was joined by Jeremy Hunt MP, former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care; Professor Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College and former UK Chief Medical Officer; and Salma Shah, former Special Adviser to Sajid Javid.

Dame Sally and MP Hunt both emphasized that working together as Chief Medical Officer and Health Secretary in the context of a health emergency necessitated a strong relationship built on respect, trust and communication. Here, MP Hunt also emphasized that responses to crises such as Ebola also required taking both scientific advice and public confidence into account during decision making processes, while Dame Sally noted that evidence is a social construct and that while there may be a 'best' anwer, there is rarely a single 'right' answer when responding to crises. She stressed the need to draw on a variety of kinds of science from different places when collecting the necessary evidence to inform government decision-making, and noted that it is important to have scientific advisors that have the trust of both political decision makers and of the wider scientific community.

Throughout the discussion, MP Hunt also explained why he thinks it's important to be opportunistic in seizing chances to "drag Number 10 and Number 11 over the line" when choosing moments to introduce new health policies, and shared the story of how former Prime Minster Theresa May "won the PR war" during the Novichok crisis. Meanwhile, Dame Sally shared what she learned about the government systems for responding to emergencies during the Novichok crisis, and reflected on why direct flights to Sierra Leone were banned during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

CSaP's Science and Policy Podcast's special series on Science, Policy and Pandemics is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Google Play, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Podbean, ListenNotes, Acast, Player.FM, Podcast Addict, and Castbox.


Cover Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash