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Anthea Terry, Interim Head, PolicyBristol

18 May 2020, 8:23 UTC Share

Experts aren’t just for emergencies: How COVID-19 is changing evidence-based policy making for the better

Michael Gove famously said in 2016 that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’, and with social media ‘bubbles’, fake news, and the media desire to present opposing viewpoints – however marginal – it can often feel this way.

But the actual public perception of experts and their work is more nuanced. A 2018 survey by the Wellcome Trust found that 82% of people said they were fairly or very interested in health research, up from 77% in 2015, and 75% in 2012.

The value placed on experts by policymakers has always been variable and hard to measure, ‘evidence-based policymaking’ has been around for decades, and for almost as long, the perhaps inevitable cynicism about ‘policy-based evidence making’. We have incredible success stories about research influencing policy (my favourite being the research on CFCs that led directly to the Montreal protocol and recovery of the ozone layer), yet the combined weight of almost all the world’s climate scientists fails to enact sufficient policy change. 

One of the many unique features of this time is the level of public discussion about research and the role of experts in policy making. I can’t remember another time when the membership of expert advisory groups such as SAGE was mainstream news. Similarly, a call for participants in a Covid-19 vaccine trial in Bristol was shared on neighbourhood WhatsApp and Facebook groups, and I’m talking to my family about R-numbers and logarithmic growth curves whilst lamenting the lack of supermarket delivery slots.

It is heartening to hear politicians deferring to academics and experts, and whilst it would be naÄ�ve to ignore the underlying politics, there is truth and honesty in their reliance on expert advice. Beyond politics, citizens are hungry for knowledge and understanding, and this emphasises the interplay between public and policy engagement. Across UK governments we have seen urgent calls to populate databases of academics to allow policymakers to directly engage with them, and thousands of academics responding. Relationships are central to policy influence and without doubt new relationships will be forged in the fire of this crisis. 

Many of our conversations with academic and policy stakeholders are about ‘positive recovery’; going beyond the restoration of business as usual, to support enhanced resilience, reduce inequalities, and increase sustainability. This ambition to exceed what came before should also apply to policy making. I hope that as we recover from covid-19 we can continue to work together to promote:

– Increased transparency about evidence used to inform policy decisions;

– Recognition and understanding of the role of experts in policymaking;

– Ways of working that facilitate rapid consultation and evidence-gathering, and reduce duplication of effort; and

– More collaborations between public and policy engagement professionals.

We are developing our skills as policy knowledge exchange specialists in adapting to new ways of working and our institutions are working in real time to understand what being a civic university means. At Bristol it has permeated every level of the institution; strategically, supporting economic recovery through the One City Economy Board, and ground level community support through various projects including housing NHS staff in student accommodation close to hospitals. 

The PolicyBristol team are working with academics to anticipate questions that will be asked by citizens and policymakers as we emerge from lockdown, and experimenting with virtual stakeholder events. More than ever we feel privileged to work with so many dedicated researchers, the majority of whom will never be near a minister at a podium, but whose work is making a vital contribution to our health and well-being. Thank you. 

Anthea Terry is the Interim Head of PolicyBristol at the University of Bristol. She can be contacted via 

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