Essay: being prepared when you know the next crisis will come

Preparing for the next crisis mainly means being aware that it will inevitably come. This is the conclusion drawn by the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), the Health Council of the Netherlands (GR) and the Council for Public Administration (ROB) in their essay ‘Acquiring, assessing and weighing. The use of knowledge in policy advice in times of crisis’. The essay is the result of a conference convened by the three councils to examine the role of knowledge in dealing with an acute, chronic or predicted crisis.

Essay Verwerven, waarderen en wegen
Image: WRR

The coronavirus crisis has given us a unique glimpse into the development of scientific knowledge and the ensuing advice issued by the scientific community. The power and importance of scientific knowledge are clear, as evidenced by the rapid development of tests and vaccines. Scientific knowledge also has its limitations, however, because it is inherently uncertain and constantly evolving, for example, and because crisis situations are unpredictable. It is vital to be transparent about these limitations and to communicate them clearly.

In crisis situations, scientific advisors play an essential role in the timely acquisition and interpretation of relevant knowledge. It is then the task of politicians and administrators to assess and weigh the knowledge and, on that basis, to decide how to tackle the crisis. The essay highlights three key lessons:

  1. Adaptivity: crises require politicians, administrators and advisory bodies to demonstrate adaptability. During a crisis, scientific advisors can proactively formulate questions and provide guidance to strike upon answers that will help mitigate the crisis. In addition, they can provide policymakers with greater manoeuvrability by looking further ahead.
  2. Multidisciplinarity: advisory boards are composed of different scientific disciplines that can share areas of overlap, but that can also sometimes clash. It is absolutely vital in a crisis in which far-reaching decisions must be made that the full range of perspectives receive due consideration. This requires practice, which can be achieved when advisory bodies endeavour to collaborate more often when crises are not at hand.
  3. Division of responsibility: tasks and responsibilities are distributed between science, advice and decision-making. Advisory bodies should guard against these responsibilities becoming too intertwined. This becomes particularly vital the longer the crisis persists and the more prominent the role of politics and governance becomes.

Conference

At the beginning of this year, the Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy, the Health Council of the Netherlands and the Council for Public Administration organized a conference on crisis preparedness, the COVID-19 pandemic and knowledge in policy advice. During the conference, scientists from a range of disciplines, politicians and administrators discussed these issues. Their efforts yielded the essay ‘Verwerven, waarderen en wegen. De inzet van kennis bij beleidsadvisering in crisistijd’ (Acquiring, assessing and weighing. The use of knowledge in policy advice in times of crisis).