COVID-19 has sparked new relationships between the academic and policy worlds. How do we maintain them when the threat recedes?

A line of bottles containing COVID-19 vaccine

Stephen Reicher reflects upon the ‘unprecedented coming together’ this pandemic has encouraged, and highlights three key areas that must be addressed if we are to maintain this new spirit of collaboration

In the aftermath of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, the New York Times stated that ‘science has failed to guard us’. This was hardly unfair, given that scientists were unsure what had even caused the pandemic, let alone how to treat it – beyond basic public health measures such as fresh air and quarantining the sick.

A century on and things couldn’t be more different. Within weeks of the new disease emerging, the coronavirus genome had been sequenced and specific tests for SARS-CoV-2 developed. Within a year, new vaccines have been tested, licensed and rolled out to the public.

What’s more, the science has not remained confined to the scientists. Discussion of false positives and negatives, of antigens and antibodies and mutation and evolution has become the currency of the evening news and the radio phone-in – not least because they are the basis of policy decisions that are transforming our everyday lives.

All that is true of the life sciences is equally true of the behavioural sciences. COVID-19 flourishes through human sociality, so limiting its spread depends on reshaping fundamental patterns of human action. Here too, what was once the preserve of the tutorial room has migrated to the talk show. Debates over the roots of compliance, the nature of the social contract and the origins of trust have become commonplace in public discourse, as in policy debate. We are all amateur epidemiologists and virologists and psychologists and anthropologists now.

An unprecedented coming together

What we are seeing is an unprecedented coming together, reflecting what has happened more generally during the pandemic. Faced by a common threat and experiencing a common fate, we have seen the emergence of a sense of shared identity which in turn has been the basis of widespread social solidarity. Neighbours who had lived for years in ignorance of each other have come together in street-level WhatsApp groups and community-level mutual aid groups.

Similarly, academic neighbours who passed each other daily on campus have come together in countless advisory groups – and realised how much more they can achieve in combination. The life scientists can tell the behavioural scientists (like me) what behaviours must change to contain the pandemic. In return, the behavioural scientists can tell the life scientists how to shape and reshape behaviour, taking guidance from historical as well as contemporaneous studies. In this time of crisis, we have largely discarded the toxic belief in ‘two cultures’ of science and arts; we have learnt from each other, and learnt to respect each other.

Equally, academics as a whole have come together with policymakers, policy advisors and practitioners to an unprecedented degree. In general terms (and up to the highest level), there has been an understanding of the need to collectivise the pandemic response – stressing the need to act for the ‘we’ not the ‘I’; nurturing the sense of shared identity that has proved so crucial in securing adherence and solidarity; and drawing on group norms and group culture in order to buttress preventative measures.

More specifically, behavioural scientists have (often for the first time) come together with government communications teams, allying the former’s theoretical understanding of the bases of social influence to the latter’s technical skill and artistry in turning concepts into compelling products.

This renewed spirit of collaboration is one of the few positive things to come out of these terrible times – and hopefully something we can preserve as the pandemic recedes. But in order to do so, we must avoid any temptation to romanticise crisis in retrospect (as in the one-sided myths of a ‘Blitz spirit’), and be candid about the problems of collaboration.

While the notion of two cultures of science and arts may be outmoded, COVID-19 has highlighted the need to address the different cultures of academia and policymaking. To do this, we must expose some taken-for-granted assumptions that often impede communication and collaboration between the two.

Three key areas of division

While I don’t have the space to address the divisions in full – my aim is more to generate a conversation – I will start by raising three areas which, in my experience, have the potential to divide academics and policymakers, thereby reducing the prospect of good evidence-based decisions being made.

The first, and simplest, is time. You ask an academic a question, they will go away and think for a bit, plan a research proposal, submit it, do the research, write up the publication, have it peer-reviewed and accepted for publication. Only then can they give you an answer – in five or six years. In contrast, a minister who needs to make a policy decision might grant you five or six months, if you are lucky. Sometimes it is more like five or six days. What must academics do if they are to oblige such policy requests?

They must be careful, certainly. Academics take time to produce answers for a very good reason: they want these answers to have sufficient heft to stand the test of time. Research which delivers predictable and specific short-term benefits can be easily monetised and done by market-led research institutions. What universities uniquely provide is more unpredictable, long-term understanding and benefits. To compromise this would endanger their very raison d’etre.

Having said that, must we always set the long term against the short term – endurance against responsiveness? And if not, what does greater responsiveness require in terms of academic research practices, research funding (should we be putting more into generic research teams which can react immediately to new challenges?) and ethics procedures (instead of the lengthy process of putting in a separate ethics proposal for each piece of research, could we consider generic ethics training and certification for researchers, combined with periodic review in order to ensure accountability?)

While I am not committed to any specific changes, I believe we would do well to interrogate all aspects of academic research through the prism of time.

A second area of largely unarticulated difference pertains to the criteria for defining knowledge and acting on it. As academics, we assume we know nothing unless we know something beyond reasonable doubt. That is, we only claim to have a finding when we reject the null hypothesis that there is no finding, and we use conservative criteria to come to this decision. Yet a policymaker who has to make a decision as to whether to act or not (e.g. whether to keep pubs open or closed in the pandemic), where not acting is as consequential as acting, would skew their outcomes dramatically by adopting this approach.

Here it may make sense to go on the balance of evidence – or even go to the opposite extreme and, using a precautionary principle, decide that even if there is only an outside chance of an effect (e.g. that pubs impact community infection rates), to act as if it were a reality. Once we engage directly with the policy world, we cannot escape from the way that politics shapes even our most basic assumptions as academics.

The final area of difference I will consider here also relates to knowledge – but this time, what forms of knowledge are most valued. As an academic social psychologist, my interest lies in the general processes that shape human behaviour – for example, the role of group norms in social influence. I have run plenty of studies looking at the way in which a person’s beliefs about what others in their group believe shape what they think and do. I am less interested in the specific domain (and associated norms) in which I address this process than the general relationships between norm and influence that obtain across domains.

However, for those involved in policy, the opposite is the case. They aren’t so interested in the generality (or at least, the minister they need to persuade isn’t) as in the specific problem area. So when I tell these policymakers about studies on norms in (say) climate change behaviour, they are somewhat bemused – and I am equally bemused when they seemingly reject my offering while asking: ‘But are there any studies of norms in terms of adherence to mask wearing?’

New and productive relationships

I am not suggesting that the differences between academic and policy approaches are insuperable. Indeed, the problem is less the differences in assumptions as the fact that these assumptions are shared within each particular world, and hence don’t need to be articulated.

Unfortunately, when these worlds come together, that silence no longer functions as a sign of common understanding, and instead becomes a potential source of mutual misunderstanding. If we don’t understand the different starting points that lead us to different conclusions, we may begin to regard the other as obtuse, obstructive and unreasonable. Conversely, it is only by realising and acknowledging our different needs and demands that we can work together more effectively.

In conclusion, the challenge of COVID-19 has produced a range of new and productive relationships between the academic and policy worlds. It has demonstrated the huge potential for bringing together government with a much wider range of disciplines than has traditionally been the case. But the future of these relationships is far from assured.

Whether they thrive or wither post-pandemic is (at least in part) dependent upon a reflexive conversation regarding some of the very basic assumptions – and not only those raised here – which frame our work and guide our practices, but which may differ from those of our would-be partners. Self-examination is never a comfortable exercise, since it reveals contingencies where once we assumed certainties. But the payoff is considerable – not only in terms of understanding the other, but also ourselves.

Stephen Reicher is Bishop Wardlaw Professor at the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews