Enhancing collaboration between scientists, policy makers and members of the public

This essay aims to project the opportunity presented by the COVID-19 pandemic by enhancing collaboration between scientists, policy makers and members of the public. As seen during the pandemic, science-based policy making can help to save lives and solve problems. The enthusiasm created by seeing scientists and policy makers deliberating and communicating with members of the public to address the COVID-19 crisis can be sustained to address other pressing global issues in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity to recognise the role of science and scientists in societal and global development. Particularly, it created an opportunity for more engagements and collaborations between scientists, policy makers and members of the public. At the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, it is common to see scientists in the field of public health, epidemiology, and even in the social sciences providing expert knowledge and scientific advice to the government and members of the public on the best strategies to combat the pandemic. It is fascinating to know that people, including myself, are eager to listen to these scientists on daily basis to better learn how to protect themselves and their loved ones. It could be argued that the technical support and expert knowledge of these scientists partly helped to manage the pandemic and limited the death toll.

Before COVID-19, the role of science in societal development was not well projected. In fact, scientific inputs in national decision making is not a common occurrence in most countries, due to the lack of collaboration between scientists, policy makers and members of the pubic. Key national decisions are often taken without scientific evidence or inputs from experts and scientists. Scientists are more concerned with conducting their research and publishing their findings in journals and other scientific outlets, without means of engaging or communicating these findings and their relevance to the members of the public. But the COVID-19 pandemic, in my opinion, changed that to some extent. It showed the advances and developments that can be achieved when there is collaboration between scientists, government officials and members of the public.

Hence, seeing scientists and government officials and politicians standing side-by-side and offering solutions to one of the major global challenges of the moment is a great opportunity presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. This opportunity can be leveraged upon to address other pressing global challenges such as climate change.

Addressing other global challenges like climate change and global warming requires multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approaches. Expert knowledge and scientific advice will be helpful in devising the best adaptation and mitigating strategies. Technical expertise will also be needed to combat future instances of public health emergencies or other related events. Efforts to solve these global problems will only be effective and successful if scientists, government officials and members of the public cooperate and share knowledge and ideas.

This creates the need to give more visibility to the works of scientists and experts. Direct engagement between scientists, government officials and members of the public could encourage people to take the necessary actions needed to solve particular problems. For example, it is well known that while majority of the global population believes in the threat of climate change and the need to take quick actions, a large proportion of the population and politicians still contend this fact. Hence, more opportunities should be created for scientists to share the realities of these global problems to members of the public. Besides, members of the public are likely to trust scientists than politicians, and follow their guidance.

From a practical perspective, for example, scientists working at the forefront of climate change at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conducts research on climate change and advocates for actions needed to combat the problem. But it is rare for these scientists to actively engage members of the public, especially non-scientists, with these information. Getting regular updates on new scientific findings on climate change (similar to the COVID-19 briefings) from scientists, which members of the public, view as unbiased, may allow people to understand the nature and scale of the problem and encourage them to take necessary actions.

But there is currently no systematic framework for achieving such collaboration between scientists, policy makers and members of the public, especially in developing countries, and at the global level. Some advanced countries have officials or even institutions responsible for providing scientific advice for the government. In the case of the United Kingdom, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser is responsible for this activity. But, developing countries have limited scientific capacity, and scientists in, say, Africa have limited experience on how to communicate scientific ideas to non-scientists. Hence, there is need for greater support for enhancing the technical capacity of scientists as well as their abilities to engage with government officials and members of the public. Specifically, the United Kingdom should provide financial and technical support to scientific bodies in developing countries, as part of its international development assistance programme. Building capacity in developing countries will enable them to be able to solve their problems with indigenous knowledge. This will ultimately contribute to global development.




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