The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.
The Impact Initiative has closed. This website has now been archived and will no longer be updated.

COVID-19 may be the ultimate test of science and policy partnerships

© Jorge Martin 2019

Apr 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed debates about the politics of science firmly into the mainstream. Suddenly it feels as if everyone is talking about the challenges faced by epidemiologists, behavioural scientists, infectious disease modellers and government health officials. A new report from the Impact Initiative, produced in partnership with UK Research Innovation (UKRI), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the UK Collaboration for Development Research (UKCDR), suggests there are some key qualities that may go towards determining the success of research-policy partnerships and those seeking to influence them.

A new framework for research-policy partnerships

Last summer, in what now feels like the very distant past, a group of donors, researchers and civil society organisations met in London to discuss learning arising from a new IDS Bulletin that analyses a series of research-policy collaborations from ESRC-DFID-funded research projects around the world. These case studies, along with a literature review of development partnership theory, formed the basis of a set of three inter-related partnership qualities: 1) Bounded Mutuality; 2) Sustained Interactivity 3) Policy Adaptability. At the time these were deemed to have important implications for government funded development research and are written up in a report published this week.

The politics of COVID-19 science

COVID-19 is placing enormous pressure on the relationships between scientists and governments. Not all of these can be classified as partnerships but they are collaborations and interactions that benefit from trust and mutual learning. Conflicting models and theories around the spread of infection, contested public health advice and concerns over whose evidence counts, are being played out daily in the media. Although not focused specifically on research in health emergencies, the partnerships framework the Impact Initiative has developed may help in understanding what is going on and what can be done. Here are some thoughts on how the framework might be adapted and applied by those grappling with the engagement of research with COVID-19 policy.

Bounded mutuality

COVID-19 has thrown into stark relief the ‘bounded’ nature of collaborations between politicians, government advisors and the wider scientific community. Key to successful research-policy partnerships is a common understanding of a given problem, and compatible values which can underpin evidence-informed decisions. However, the engagement of research with policy is a messy and interactive process. Despite the high demand for evidence on the clinical, and to a lesser extent the social, response to the virus, science and policy interactions are bounded by differences in organisational mandates, priorities and accountabilities.

What has emerged in the policy debate on the UK’s response to COVID-19 in the last couple of weeks is that different groups of scientists share evidence that appears conflicting, leaving elected officials to make difficult decisions. Despite researchers and policy actors sharing an overarching mutual agenda to beat COVID-19, networks, interpersonal relationships and politics will favour some views over others. The key players, whether government ministers and their advisors, leading virologists and epidemiologists, or business groups and trade unions, all have different priorities. These vary between generating politically palpable policy options,  the application of specific scientific models and disciplines, and  representing the interests of certain groups.

Scientific facts can change

Take for example the way in which the UK Government, after initial reluctance, responded to the crisis by drawing on mathematical modelling of epidemiological and social factors by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group and Imperial College. This evidence recommended social distancing measures that would inevitably bring the greatest hardship to the most financially and socially vulnerable. Economists, Treasury officials and social scientists have subsequently scrambled to develop measures to reduce the negative impact on the most disadvantaged and avoid a potentially disastrous backlash against social distancing. Whereas a blue-print for predicting the curve of infections and measures to flatten it existed prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the social and fiscal response has been flung together. As political scientist Graham Room puts it: “As the scientific facts changed, so did Government policy”.  Despite this it would be wrong to see these scientific and policy agendas as conflicting. A sweet spot did emerge where the agendas of these different actors converged although fierce debate continues.  

We need to be honest and pragmatic about the power asymmetries and different accountabilities that exist within science and policy collaborations. Only then are we likely to see evidence generated, accessed and used in responsible ways that value different kinds of knowledge and expertise. This is worth thinking about next time you see your government’s ‘evidence-based’ public health measures challenged by some and supported by others. Even if we cannot reach consensus on herd immunity theory, testing, social distancing measures or economic stimulus, we still need enough mutuality of purpose to generate politically viable ways forward.

Sustained interactivity

The second quality in the framework relates to the need for continuous engagement over time that helps build trust and further strengthens networked ways of working. This may seem less relevant at a time of acute uncertainty when things are changing so rapidly. However, the scientific and policy partnerships that are currently being mobilised arebuilt on pre-existing relationships. This is particularly true for government advisory functions, such as the UK Government’s Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) on COVID-19. This group is comprised of several pre-existing formalised collaborations such as the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG). Its members are embedded in Public Health England and the NHS and move in and out of academic and government positions.

However, as new voices are added to the cacophony of science that this emergency has generated, it will be important to disrupt some of these more established policy networks. Rather than seeing other types of evidence (and actors) as only useful at key policy moments, such as behavioural science on social distancing measures or education researchers on school closures, we need ongoing dialogue between disciplines and sectors. By sustaining and building relationships that span research disciplines and policy sectors we may avoid the pitfall of only incorporating evidence into policy when it meets short term political requirements or corresponds with pre-existing attitudes and social and political norms. The UK policy network that emerged in response to Ebola in West Africa in 2014 demonstrated how easy it is to ignore evidence you do not like the sound of when it comes from outside your core partnership of trusted advisors. Sustained interactivity between a broad church of partners may help avoid repeating that mistake.

Policy adaptability

The final part of the framework sets out ideas on how partnerships can be truly adaptive to policy environments. In relation to COVID-19 this is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. Just how can any government be expected to roll with the punches thrown at it by such an acutely uncertain context? No sooner has one policy been adopted, based on some form of evidence, than a new set of problems emerge along with new evidence. The answer may partly lie in the membership of the multitude of research-policy collaborations that are responding to the crisis. Whether they serve government advisory functions, the economic response, citizen-led initiatives or operate within health services, the role of boundary partners is particularly important in complex systems.

These individuals and institutions sit outside well-established networks centred on government departments or established epistemic communities of like-minded scientists. Professional associations of teaching and health practitioners, the media, community organisations and independent research institutions, can all feed in new knowledge and experiences from those operating outside core policy networks. Key brokers or ‘super connectors’ with the skills, contacts and personal qualities to connect dissimilar groups or individuals play a central role in overcoming the unfortunate tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Without them the chances of rapidly setting  new policy courses amid uncertainty are greatly diminished.

The power of partnerships

Time will tell if policy elites have the kinds of evidence use behaviours and adaptive policy mechanisms to see us through. Whatever the next few months have in store for us, the ability of diverse communities of researchers and policy actors to find common ground, sustain their interactivity and adapt to change, will have real consequences for COVID-19’s impact on our communities, public health and economy.

If you are interested in research uptake in emergencies you might also like this recording of a recent IDS Seminar with speakers from IDRC, Hewlett Foundation, ESRC and the Alliance for Useful Evidence.




Originally published by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) on Friday 3 April 2020 here.

The Impact Initiative blog posts are either from individual researchers or from major research programmes. Some of the blog posts are original source and are written by researchers and experts connected to the two research programmes jointly funded by ESRC and FCDO: the Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research and the Raising Learning Outcomes in Education Systems Research Programme. Other blog posts are imported from related websites and programmes. 

The views expressed in these blogs reflect the opinions of each individual and may not represent the Institute of Development Studies, the University of Cambridge, ESRC or FCDO.


The Impact Initiative welcomes comments.  To enable a healthy environment for discussion we reserve the rights to remove comments if they are considered abusive or disruptive. All comments are reactively moderated. This means that comments are usually only checked if a complaint is made about them.