Politicians make mistakes all the time. There is no getting away from it, as being wrongfooted by public opinion can spell the end of a political career. In that sense, they’re a bit like academics: we are also bound to get things wrong. But unlike politicians, we see the advantages in uncovering and learning from our errors and biases, in discovering new things and constantly thinking beyond the immediate problem.
That’s why the national academies – the British Academy, representing the humanities and social sciences, among them – are drawing together the country’s most distinguished researchers to support the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic by sharing different perspectives, knowledge and insight.
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It is understandable that the government is focusing on short-term decisions about the pandemic, and gratifying that they aim to follow “the science” (ie data and evidence). Much of this science involves epidemiological, medical, engineering and technological capabilities.
But it is important to also focus on how to address many of the social and economic challenges in the wake of the pandemic: we need “science” in the broadest sense of the word.
Even now, we need to understand the long-term consequences of the government’s strategy for tackling the pandemic. This week, the government plans to unveil elements of its strategy for easing lockdown. It is vital that ministers seek a wide range of advice to inform this. Schools, businesses and other employers are counting on it.
We need to understand how people cope with medical and other threats to their lives and livelihoods, and how differing views and backgrounds affect responses to such challenges. We need to identify and address the weak points in our legal, educational, and informal care structures.
This pandemic may bring changes in many people’s work, roles and social relations, with significant implications for mental health and wellbeing. It has exposed new vulnerabilities not addressed by our health and benefits systems. With so much in flux, we need to work out what the new social contract will be.
We need psychologists to establish the potentially damaging impact of virtual learning on young children, ethical philosophers to scrutinise the value given to care work in society, legal scholars to interpret the powers devolved administrations have when implementing emergency measures, and urban geographers to turn the “test, track and trace” strategy into a reliable method to ease lockdown. These are just a few examples of the challenges society will face before it resolves the coronavirus crisis.
One example of how this is working already is research by social psychologists at several different universities, which has helped form our understanding of the dynamics of social distancing and crowd behaviour in emergencies. Their research has helped public policy makers identify the stress points, and develop social norms that people will actually be willing to comply with.
One lesson we must take from this pandemic is that governments need to understand the value of deferring to multiple scientific perspectives. Sars and Ebola have led to growing recognition that epidemics are social and anthropological – as well as medical – phenomena. A team of anthropologists at the Institute of Development Studies worked closely with communities in Sierra Leone to trace the social practices, such as burial rites, that might be involved in transmitting Ebola and replace these with temporary, risk-free alternatives. Thanks to this experience, the World Health Organisation now regularly relies on social scientists in shaping its public health emergency measures.
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As Levi Strauss said, an expert knows all the answers – if you ask the right questions. Our quest is not to find the one truth or “the science”, but to deploy our different academic insights to best effect under the circumstances.
It is then perfectly possible to get multiple experts to work together to identify how we can get things less wrong. That is what we need to be doing now by drawing on every sphere of academic insight across the humanities, social and natural sciences. If we can get that right and stick with it, we will lay the foundations for shaping a better future.
Prof Dominic Abrams is the British Academy’s vice-president for social sciences
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