Message from the new co-directors of SKAPE (2022-25)
Two headshots of Nathan Coombs (left) and Eugénia Rodrigues (right)

By Nathan Coombs and Eugénia Rodrigues

As we head into summer 2022, the concerns of SKAPE have never seemed so salient – and contentious.

Over the previous two years the judgements of scientific advisors and their interpretation by policymakers have been thrust into the public spotlight. While science has played a prominent role in public policymaking for decades, science advice has rarely been as influential and politicised as during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, directly impacting public health governance, the economy, and individual freedoms, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. Models, simulations, and hypothetical scenarios became a heated focus for public debate. Trust in numbers was put to a dramatic test.

In this context, in assuming the directorship of SKAPE (2022-25), we see the present moment as an opportunity to promote the centre’s enduring themes while also branching in new directions.

One key change compared to recent years is that we plan to move our events back in-person. It is a testament to the commitment of SKAPE members that the online seminar series was well-attended throughout the pandemic. There are nevertheless limits to the online format; limitations which, after two years of Teams and Zoom, we are all familiar with. We mean to restore a public dimension to our activities by bringing scholars from across the university, policymakers, and the wider public into dialogue.

Alongside continuing with the seminar series (likely in a hybrid format), we are planning a series of public events on the governance of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. The governance of the pandemic will provide rich material for reflection by sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and scholars of science and technology and of social policy for decades to come. With our series of events, we are particularly interested in exploring the interactions between different regulatory sciences during the pandemic and the diverse normative perspectives of scholars coming from different disciplinary traditions and value systems.

This stream of events will begin with an inaugural keynote lecture by Professor Stephen Hilgartner (Cornell University) in September. Stephen will introduce the initial findings, methodology and intellectual rationale for the Comparative Covid Response Project, of which he is a lead investigator alongside Sheila Jasanoff (Harvard). The project has a core research team comprised of researchers from five continents and sixteen countries, who together are studying how the pandemic was framed as a policy issue, and what sources of scientific advice policymakers rely on, among other questions. Stephen’s keynote will provide a global frame to the ongoing series of events on the pandemic organised by SKAPE throughout the coming academic year.

The logo for the Comparative COVID Response project

Co-lead investigator of the international Comparative Covid Response Project, Professor Stephen Hilgartner, will provide the SKAPE keynote lecture for 2022-23, which will kick off the centre’s series of planned public events on the governance of the pandemic.

The first semester of 2022/23 will see two public roundtable debates on facets of pandemic governance where the linkages between science, knowledge and policy have been put under acute strain.

The first roundtable will interrogate the concept and practice of ‘lockdowns’. Until 2020 a term with carceral connotations, following the cordon sanitaire placed around Wuhan, China, after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, China’s experiment in quarantining cities and the nation as a whole was endorsed by the World Health Organisation and adopted by countries across the world in the face of dire epidemiological predictions of health care systems being overwhelmed. In the intervening years, governments have generally considered stay-at-home orders successful in ‘stopping the spread’ and ‘flattening the curve’, so much so that some thinkers have argued that lockdowns provide a template for managing future pandemics or even responding to climate change. Others argue that the collateral damage of lockdowns to public health was too high, as were the costs to individual liberty. Others still question whether lockdowns were even successful in reducing mortality from the virus. Our first roundtable assembles three scholars who offer differing perspectives on these issues with the aim of promoting nuanced debate on an emotive but important issue.

The second roundtable addresses the status of evidence in non-pharmaceutical interventions. Alongside shelter-in-place orders, more incremental measures were also introduced in many countries to play a supporting role in minimising transmission of the virus (school closures, social distancing rules, face masks, etcetera). Many measures were novel and untested at the time of their introduction but were assigned precise predictive power in epidemiological modelling. Governments’ felt they could manage risk at a granular level by activating these instruments counter-cyclically when infections were trending upwards. Critics have pointed to the thin and contested evidentiary basis of these instruments. The science and technology studies literature, on the other hand, points to the ubiquity of evidential fragility in ‘policy-relevant science’, as it is tasked with informing policymaking under time pressured conditions of uncertainty. The second roundtable promotes reflection on the standards to which we should assess evidentiary sufficiency in crisis conditions and models for future evidence-based policymaking.

The third roundtable, in the second semester, engages the role played by economists in the governance of the pandemic. Economics traditionally plays a large role in public health policymaking for calculating the costs and benefits of potential courses of action. Economics did not, however, play a direct role in most governments’ governance of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, with the assumption being that the moral imperative of responding to the crisis was too important to be subjected to quantitative analysis. Most academic economists, despite being known to favour free markets and being wary of the overbearing hand of the ‘big state’, have remained muted throughout the pandemic, offering neither critique nor endorsement of governments’ responses. At the same time, ‘applied economists’ in central banks and large investment banks have played a large role in the governance of the pandemic through their monetary operations, research publications and credit allocation. Finally, where there has been a systematic critique of lockdowns, it has tended to derive from economists with sympathies towards the Austrian tradition. The third roundtable brings together speakers to make sense of the confusing role played by economics and economists during the pandemic, and the different value systems and epistemic assumptions harboured by their profession compared to biomedical practitioners.

The role of citizen knowledge in the governance of COVID is the focus of the fourth and final roundtable of the series. Despite the overwhelming shock, pain and losses experienced by populations all over the world – or perhaps because of them – people were quick to react to an unprecedented situation. Either in collaboration with researchers or in an autonomous way, records were made, testimonials were given, and social media platforms were used to report, gather and use information in a multiplicity of ways. But what is the value of this vast ‘data bank’ beyond contributing to our collective memory of the past two years and how can it be used to complement or integrate data collected via traditional ways? Further, the definition of Long Covid as a medical condition is closely linked to the active mobilisation of those suffering from it. On the other hand, projects calling for Long Covid sufferers to donate their data were a common feature of the pandemic, blurring the lines between individual and collective, private and public. The fourth roundtable will promote discussion and reflection on the value of citizen knowledge in navigating the pandemic and making sense of the contradictory advice and recommendations emanating from politicians, policymakers and scientists. We will also look at citizens’ contribution to establishing the evidence-base for Long Covid and the extent to which SARS-Cov-2 may have ignited transformative change in the citizen-expert relationship.

Details about each of the roundtables will be available on the SKAPE website and other media channels in due course. As a research centre relying on and promoting interdisciplinary dialogues on the intersections between science, knowledge and policy, our commitment to theoretically informed and practically applied approaches remains unchanged. We hope that the events we plan to deliver will meet the expectations of SKAPE members, while reaching out to new and wider audiences.

Nathan Coombs, Sociology.

Eugénia Rodrigues, Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.