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Five important tips about science for decisions in a COVID-19 world

We are currently experiencing a lot of complex scientific and technical information in the public domain, being used by non-science decision-makers and many corporate entities. And rightly, this information is changing rapidly as knowledge is updated. By and large, the communication of this complexity has been good and helpful. Sometimes less so. Here are some tips for communicating science for impact in the current Covid-19 global pandemic drawn on my experience doing so with environment and public health emergencies over time.

Using science in public conversations usually needs careful thought about communication, audiences and objectives, however in an environmental or public health emergency it is even more important to get it right.

In my experience, here are five (5) important headline points for using science and/or technically complex inputs to decisions. Of course, there are many other considerations too however getting these five right will help a lot.

Note that the decisions might be what to inform the public, what to do in my own life or how to frame a public or corporate policy response. There is very little difference in the application of these tips for non-science based decision-makers, regulators, advisors, scientists or broader audiences.

1. Push the available evidence to the limit, and never beyond

In complex and worrisome circumstances, people sometimes want facts pushed too far and want scientists to make predictions that really might not yet be possible. With fast moving emergencies at times what might be possible to say on Friday was not last Monday.

It is essential that the science is pushed to the absolute limits, but never beyond what is fact. It is essential that those with the scientific knowledge brief leaders well, so they are confident on where that line is. Leaders always want assurance that they are speaking truthful facts. They may also (naturally) want to nudge the science further to give comfort to others. Hold the line to what is known and factual. Always give any qualifications or uncertainty clearly and in plain English to all audiences, along with what is known about the pathway to fill that uncertainty.

2. Consistent and current messaging based on evidence

Treat all people (i.e., leaders, decision-makers, corporate Boards, broad audiences) as sensible yet worried adults. Keep the science and technical messaging clear, consistent and current. Update it with new knowledge when available and ensure absolute consistency in the use of language to describe complex, new or challenging pieces of science. Always base it on evidence (see above).

3. Collaborate/Co-design/Empower

While it might not be the first choice for decision-makers, using collaborative and/or empowering processes for people to understand and have agency in decisions is even more essential in times of environmental and/or public health urgency. This is as much about ensuring all those involved understand the complexity and uncertainty as it is about building and maintaining trust by giving affected people agency in their future.

In a COVID-19 world any face to face collaboration is going to be hard, banned or at least undesirable. However, there are many tried and true online and other collaborative tools to enable genuine conversations on real issues. At Science into Action (@scienceintoaction) we use some simple online collaborative tools (and great partners skilled in these techniques) to bring people even from large numbers of different locations together to co-design and collaborate.

4. Different people need differing level of information

While a one-size fits all communications approach regarding “the science” may be promoted by some professionals, in times when complex and/or challenging science is needed, it is important to note that different people need very differing levels of information. Some people want clear, simple guidance only, some want interpreted information and there is a cohort who want data (even raw data). The number of people viewing the Covid-19 Global Dashboard maintained by Johns Hopkins University is a testament to that. Of course, many people want all three levels of guidance, interpretation and data – or at least to know that it is there if they want to look.

The final tip is as much an outcome of doing the other four as it is an aim and need in itself:

5. Maintain Trust

Use this as the touchstone. Run every decision past the touchstone. The science "black box" must be trusted and even moreso in times of potential for rumour and mistrust to spread like ... a virus (sorry, no other way to say that). Will X or Y maintain trust in the scientific or technical information, decisions, public or corporate policy decisions?

Using this is a final test will enable leaders and decision-makers to make the hard calls that are needed, in the timelines that are appropriate and with the scale of certainty made clear. Always maintain the trust of all of these audiences when using complex science and technical information in moments of crisis (frankly, do it anytime, but moreso in emergencies!). If you are unsure yourself if a certain approach will maintain trust, test it with “critical friends” (i.e., people trusted by you to speak truth about any matter, and/or to speak truth to power).

In summary, please do apply these tips for making more #scienceimpact in times of public conversations about scientific or technical complexity. And let me know how you went. Maybe there is a 6th essential tip that you would add from your experience?


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