COVID-19 shows the importance of evidence-based decision-making

Posted on Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Author: Kimberly Girling

Member of the Advisory Committee, ISSP
Interim Executive Director, Evidence for Democracy

This blog is an adaptation of the author’s opening remarks for the ISSPFood for Thought event Science, Society and Policy in the Age of COVID19: What Changes will Stick? Which will Prove Fleeting?

Since the emergence of COVID-19, we have seen some clear and encouraging examples of how science and evidence-informed policy have shaped Canada's response to the pandemic. Public health officials have been given a platform, ensuring that scientists are actually delivering messages to the public and providing them with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. New tools are emerging to help governments find and use evidence more effectively. For example, chief and departmental science advisors have led the development of CanCovid, a platform that uses Slack and digital tools to help scientists across Canada expedite science communication and the use of science in decision-making. We have also seen the emergence of task forces and advisory panels to help bridge the gap between the researchers and decision-makers on critical scientific issues. On top of this, we have seen significant new investments in science research for treatments and vaccine development, demonstrating an emphasis on the importance of science to help address this crisis.

Of course, to do good evidence-informed decision-making, we need good evidence. Yet COVID-19 highlights some of our shortcomings with respect to data. For example, a new study from Ottawa Public Health shows that 66 percent of people in Ottawa who have tested positive for COVID-19 are part of racialized groups. This statistic emphasizes just how important it is to have access to robust and disaggregated data to help us better understand how COVID-19 is truly impacting diverse populations. We also need stronger testing and contact-tracing data to better understand where and how the disease is moving and create strong models and predictions. All of this requires better data collection and data management, and good tools that allow evidence creators to get that evidence to policymakers and the public. All of this is really hard to do effectively, especially when we are looking at something like COVID-19 where information is changing so rapidly and our data needs are so high. 

While we’ve seen some encouraging steps taken in Canada during COVID-19, there are still major challenges facing science and evidence-based decision-making moving forward. We are seeing in real time how misinformation can make it really difficult for governments to find and use the best available science, especially when there is so much public fear and anxiety. In recent days, public health officials have received death threats because they're advocating the use of masks. These challenges are becoming more pervasive with the increase of digital communication, where scientists as well as bad actors alike can so easily communicate with large audiences. While we are seeing investments in these areas, like Heritage Canada’s new fund to support combating misinformation, this problem is not going away. 

Trust is another huge issue. While recent polling from 3M indicates that the pandemic is leading to increases in trust in science, challenges still remain with respect to trust in institutions and experts. For example, the  Edelman Trust Barometer for 2020 shows that only 53% of Canadians trust core institutions like government, a 3 percentage point decline from last year. Situations like COVID-19, where the science is rapidly changing and the public is anxious and fearful, can undermine evidence-informed decision-making, even if we have the right tools for it. 

COVID-19 has shown the benefits of using evidence as the foundation of decision-making in very clear and sobering terms. Our response has not been perfect, but it’s been clear that Canada’s approach has been rooted in science and evidence. Canada has good tools to help inform evidence-based policy, but we need to ensure that those tools are protected and continue to develop. If we want to increase the use of evidence-based decision-making, for COVID-19 and beyond, we need to sustain the public demand for it.

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