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  • Kyle Demes

COVID-19: This is how research and government should be working together

As we grapple with COVID-19, the distance between political narratives and data-driven policy becomes even more apparent—and dangerous. British Columbia’s COVID-19 response shows us what is possible when researchers, government, and communications work in tandem.

So why doesn’t this happen more regularly? Governments have to consider the polls and scientists don’t always translate their findings into language that is accessible to the public.

Public health officials and the government are actively encouraging us to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic through a variety of measures (travel restrictions, canceling large gatherings, washing hands frequently, social distancing, avoiding touching our faces). Research shows us these tactics will save lives. The proactive, life-saving responses of our governments are a testament to our ability to trust evidence and make sound choices together for the good of British Columbians.

But this does not need to be a gold standard reserved for crisis situations—it could be our basic approach to how we design and implement all government policies and services. Governments want their policies to be effective and they want to deliver services in a cost-effective way that improves the lives of their citizens. Researchers want to collaborate—with each other, with all levels of government, with communities, and with industry—to have an impact and to generate real solutions to the largest challenges facing society at both global and local scales. So what was different about this case?

It is not uncommon for political will and research findings to call on government to take different actions on the same challenge. And when the relationship between researchers and the public breaks down, ultimately governments won’t have the political mandate to continue making evidence-informed decisions. That is why it is especially critical that we encourage researchers to translate their findings into narratives that are accessible to the general public. At the earliest signs of the Corona virus coming to Canada, I heard many people brushing off interventions, saying that ‘everyone was going to get it anyway’. But the #flattenthecurve campaign helped turned the tide of the public’s response to the Corona virus by demonstrating, in common language and easy to understand graphics, how proactive measures would save lives. Researchers commonly look at changes in curves as ways of determining which interventions will have the biggest impact. However, when left in scientific language (lines and numbers), the critical findings are inaccessible to most people. The #flattenthecurve figures circulating on social media focus the main finding while emphasizing the human dimension: by taking action now, we can delay the spread of the virus to a rate where our healthcare system can care for those who need it—our individual actions will save lives.

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Not only was the science made easily accessible to people, but we had strong leadership from government doing the hard work to build trust in the science while connecting the public with the latest research in a rapidly developing situation. The leadership we have seen from Provincial Chief Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix should be applauded.

Imagine the B.C. we could live in if we adopted this same approach to all of the challenges we face today—homelessness, the opioid crisis, mental health, climate change. Doing so will require an active commitment from government to invest in reinforcing trust in science and a commitment from scientists to remember who their audience really is: the public. This seems like an uphill battle, but we are already observing dramatically different results in our data-driven response to the COVID-19 pandemic that other jurisdictions where the pandemic is being taken lightly. I hope these results will encourage researchers, governments, and the public to do the hard work needed to make data-driven policy our standard approach.

There are lessons to be learned from our response to COVID-19. Once this crisis has passed, we need to come together and figure out how this constellation of research, policy, and public buy-in was achieved in this challenge and how we can replicate and scale this approach.

Kyle Demes, a former marine ecology researcher, is now a Director at Simon Fraser University responsible for the development and management of large-scale research initiatives.

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