29 September 2021
In order to tackle the pandemic, governments established various types of advisory boards to provide evidence and recommendations to policy makers. Scientists working on these boards have faced many challenges, including working under significant time constraints to produce ‘evidence’ as quickly as possible. However, their voices are still largely missing in the scientific literature. In a recent qualitative study, the RECOVER social science team explores the views and experiences of scientists working on government advisory boards during the COVID- 19 pandemic, with the aim to learn lessons for future pandemic management and preparedness.
Interviews have been conducted between December 2020 and April 2021 with 21 scientists with an official government advisory role during the COVID- 19 pandemic in Belgium, the Netherlands, UK, Sweden and Germany.
The study showed that scientific advisors found the experience of working during the pandemic rewarding. However, they also faced numerous challenges. This included learning to work in an interdisciplinary way, ensuring that evidence is understood and taken on board by governments, and dealing with media and communication with the public. Scientists found themselves taking on new roles which were interpreted in various ways, because the were not clearly defined. Because of these new roles, scientists received much media attention and were often perceived and treated as a public figure. This study high-lights several lessons which can facilitate preparedness for future health emergencies.
Future pandemic preparedness efforts should focus on building interdisciplinary collaboration through development of scientists’ skills and appropriate infrastructure; ensuring transparency in how boards operate; defining and protecting the boundaries of the scientific advisor role; and supporting scientists to inform the public in the fight against disinformation, while dealing with potential hostile reactions.