Why following the science won’t be enough to build a better future after coronavirus

Policymakers will need the full power of the humanities and social sciences to deliver an inclusive, equitable and sustainable pandemic recovery, says Hetan Shah of the British Academy
Coronavirus distancing sign PA

By Hetan Shah

05 Oct 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is the most substantial policy challenge the UK has faced since the second world war. In less than a year, the virus has killed around 43,000 people, thrown the economy into recession and turned everyone’s lives upside down. Such is the scale of the challenge, it has forced policymakers and civil servants – in every sector, in every department, in every region – to devise and implement ideas at a pace that would have been unthinkable to generations past.  

Throughout the spring and summer the British Academy, the national body for the humanities and social sciences, has been examining the critical role that the SHAPE community (social sciences, humanities and the arts for people and the economy) has played in informing policy to control the spread of the virus, and the part they will play when the crisis ends. Now we have published a report, in the Journal of the British Academy, which collects our thinking and which – we hope – will assist policymakers in shaping a positive, post-pandemic future. 

The report is the product of a series of 20 workshops with experts from the SHAPE community exploring the impact of the pandemic on topics ranging from inequality and health to elections and protests. From these conversations, five principles for policy making emerged. 

The first is that policymakers should draw from a broad knowledge base, one that integrates SHAPE and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) insights, from the social, historical, cultural, behavioural and economic spheres, as well as the medical, the biological and the physical. Our workshop on plagues, pandemics and crises throughout history demonstrated, through examples from the Black Death and HIV/Aids that pandemics are complex and that policy interventions must be multidisciplinary in response. 

Second, policymaking must respond to local and historical contexts, and have people and purpose at its heart. Knowledge should not just derive from different disciplines but from the citizens, communities and cultures most affected by the issues at hand. The project’s discussion on urban environments brought attention to lived experience and highlighted that the idea of “building back better” varies from place to place. 

Thirdly, consideration must be given to the implications of voice and political authority, with particular attention paid to the language of policy. Who has a voice? How are they using it? What words, phrases and expressions are they using? And how might these be received? These questions have important implications for how different communities engage with policy and the relationships and practices that affect the recovery.  

History demonstrates that pandemics are complex and policy interventions must be multidisciplinary in response

The fourth principle is to more effectively learn from history, and to account for the complex interconnections between different scales of social and political space (for example, personal, family, local, regional, national, global), and the relations of power and influence within and between them. Our session on children and young people considered how the dispersed nature of governance on childhood policy issues – there is no single government department focusing solely on children – leads to a demand for strong inter-departmental collaboration to prevent issues “falling between the cracks”. 

And finally, there should be a renewed policy focus on the persistent issues of inequalities and inclusivity, sustainability and the environment, and education and skills. During our workshops, participants addressed how the UK government’s levelling up agenda could be a vehicle to address high levels of regional disparity, which may be exaggerated as the full impact of the crisis becomes clear. However, there is also a risk that the agenda could be applied as a blunt instrument that ignores or masks significant disparities within those regions.  

Amid the turmoil, the pandemic is a time to imagine a better future – and policymakers, coming together with SHAPE researchers, are well-placed to do so. Among the ideas outlined in our own workshops were proposals for a UK national investment bank, which could foster partnerships between government and private companies, creating profitable solutions to social and environmental problems. Our five principles offer a useful, coherent framework for turning such ideas into reality.  

By drawing attention to key areas for discussion, these principles have the potential to focus minds and foster innovative policymaking across the disciplinary spectrum, all in pursuit of a society that is more inclusive, more equitable and more sustainable. 

Hetan Shah is chief executive of the British Academy. 

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