NASA-style approach needed to prevent “bad science” influencing COVID policy, say researchers

On October 13, 2020
A new paper in Nature: Human Behaviour says behavioural science needs to undergo rigorous testing before it informs public policy on critical issues such as government responses to Covid-19. If no such testing can be done, in the interim an in-depth assessment of the limitations of existing evidence needs to come with a “warning label” that outlines the research’ limitations when communicating with policy makers.
The researchers recommend adapting NASA’s Technology Readiness Levels to make sure new ideas from the behavioural sciences are adequately tested before being adopted by governments and politicians. This could have implications for how governments construct evidence bases for interventions such as advice on household mixing or whether to encourage the use of public transport during a pandemic.

They argue the way social and behavioural science research is often conducted makes it difficult to know whether our efforts will do more good than harm and argues for caution in the way research is communicated during crises.

The researchers argue for the need for team science, which would mean a greater diversity in the backgrounds and expertise of researchers and for those with expertise in philosophy, ethics, statistics, and data and code management to work together to produce the kind of research required to better understand people the world over.

Professor Andy Przybylski, Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute, and one of the lead authors of the study, said:
“It’s positive to see that researchers across the social sciences are turning their attention to developing solutions to help governments deal with coronavirus. After all, like Peter Medawar said in The Limits of Science, science is incomparably the most successful enterprise human beings ever engaged upon.”

Professor Hans IJzerman, Université Grenoble Alpes, noted: “However, we all need to ensure policy interventions informed by behavioural science are rigorously tested and reviewed before being used on real-life people in real-life situations.

“These are not abstract intellectual exercises; we have to remember that real people’s lives and livelihoods are at stake.” Added Professor Neil A. Lewis Jr.
With that in mind, Professor Przybylski observes: “Understanding the urge to help is human and behavioural science promises to provide potent tools combat this illness, a healthy dose of realism is needed. The insights and guidance we offer must be tempered by epistemic humility.”
Published on  October 13, 2020
Updated on  October 14, 2020