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Politics and science: a look back at the Covid-19 health crisis

Jean-François Delfraissy
Chairman of the French National Consultative Ethics Committee
Key takeaways
  • Dialogue between politicians and scientists is sometimes difficult because politicians are not trained in technical matters or in accepting doubt.
  • The French political decisions taken during the health crisis were informed by national experts and international scientific teams.
  • The European response to the crisis was the most effective: the loss of life expectancy being -3 months in France compared with -2.6 years in the United States.
  • Social networks give much greater weight to opinion, which has led to a rise in conspiracy theories during the health crisis.
  • More and more training courses are being set up to give politicians a better grasp of the issues at stake in the world of research and its processes.

Do you think science and politics go well together?

They are two very dif­fer­ent worlds, but dia­logue between them is essen­tial to the vital­i­ty of our democ­ra­cy, even if it is some­times com­plex to estab­lish. This is true in the health sec­tor, and even more so dur­ing health crises such as the one we are still expe­ri­enc­ing with Covid-19. It is also true of oth­er more or less recent issues. For exam­ple, a few years ago, the author­i­ties decid­ed whether or not to pur­sue nuclear pol­i­cy in France after lis­ten­ing to a num­ber of experts. Although the experts’ views were not ful­ly tak­en into account – as the final deci­sion rest­ed with the politi­cians – the sci­en­tif­ic exper­tise helped to clar­i­fy the deci­sion that was made. But, make no mis­take, this dia­logue is gov­erned by a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple that has always been very clear: we are a democ­ra­cy in which is the role of elect­ed politi­cians to make the final deci­sions. The role of the experts is to enlight­en them, noth­ing more. 

Has this relationship been marked by ups and downs? 

Yes, of course. And for many rea­sons. First­ly, when it comes to sci­ence and exper­tise, sub­jects are becom­ing increas­ing­ly tech­ni­cal, which means that politi­cians don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the knowl­edge to ful­ly grasp them. Sec­ond­ly, the French polit­i­cal world is fair­ly stereo­typed. It’s a world in which elect­ed mem­bers of the Nation­al Assem­bly or the Sen­ate, for exam­ple, live side by side with sev­er­al thou­sand peo­ple work­ing in cab­i­nets or major admin­is­tra­tive depart­ments. Most of them are grad­u­ates of ENA, now known as the Insti­tut nation­al du ser­vice pub­lic (INSP). This school, which is spe­cif­ic to France, trains sharp minds that are capa­ble of tak­ing deci­sions, but does not intro­duce them to sci­en­tif­ic rea­son­ing. Most of them left the field of sci­ence in the sec­ond or first year of sec­ondary school and were sub­se­quent­ly trained in human­i­ties-ori­ent­ed courses.

Almost all of our politi­cians have nev­er tak­en part in a the­sis, either in the hard sci­ences or in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences. Yet prepar­ing and defend­ing a the­sis requires an under­stand­ing of how research works – in oth­er words an accep­tance of doubt and uncer­tain­ty. Our rul­ing class, to some extent, is too used to liv­ing in igno­rance of this doubt. It is also strik­ing to note that there are almost no engi­neers left in our polit­i­cal class, which was not always the case. Today, the vast major­i­ty of engi­neers work in the pri­vate sec­tor, where­as in oth­er major Euro­pean democ­ra­cies such as Ger­many, the UK and Spain, there is greater diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the rul­ing elite.

What are the differences with the British model, for example? 

In the Anglo-Sax­on mod­el, there is often a chief sci­en­tist who is respon­si­ble for com­mu­ni­cat­ing sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion to polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ers. In France, I don’t think we’ve giv­en enough thought to this mod­el. Our cur­rent rela­tion­ship between exper­tise and polit­i­cal deci­sions is based on a series of good wills and estab­lished links, but it is not suf­fi­cient­ly struc­tured to be real­ly effective.

How is this an obstacle to good relations between scientists and politicians? 

It makes exchanges more com­plex for two rea­sons. First­ly, the rela­tion­ship between exter­nal exper­tise and deci­sion-mak­ers is weak­ened because the lat­ter do not always have the cul­tur­al back­ground to under­stand what sci­en­tists are shar­ing with them.What’s more, the result­ing lack of under­stand­ing of the research com­mu­ni­ty and the rel­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed inter­est shown in it by polit­i­cal play­ers part­ly explains the dif­fi­cul­ty we have in France in mak­ing research appear as essen­tial to the nation’s vision as it did 30 or 40 years ago. Today, we talk a lot about inno­va­tion, but in the end, we don’t real­ly talk about research anymore.

How can we break out of these stereotypes?

There is now a grow­ing aware­ness of the impor­tance of diver­si­fy­ing the train­ing and knowl­edge base of those who make deci­sions. We have been asked to pro­vide infor­ma­tion ses­sions on pub­lic health issues and epi­dem­ic pre­pared­ness, for exam­ple. In fact, the INSP has a course on the sub­ject. Let’s be clear, the aim is not to turn deci­sion-mak­ers into sci­en­tists, but to diver­si­fy their train­ing so that they have a bet­ter grasp of the major issues at stake in the world of research and its processes.

What is the role of the citizen here? 

The cit­i­zen is an inte­gral part of the ongo­ing con­struc­tion of democ­ra­cy, par­tic­u­lar­ly democ­ra­cy in health­care. The tri­an­gle they form with the expert and the politi­cian means that their inter­ests can be bet­ter con­sid­ered, a num­ber of con­tra­dic­tions and dis­trusts can be cleared up, and pub­lic action can be tak­en in a cli­mate of greater trust on a wide range of issues – par­tic­u­lar­ly in times of cri­sis, whether finan­cial or health-related.

What’s impor­tant in cri­sis man­age­ment is to pre­serve the bond of trust between cit­i­zens, politi­cians, and experts. This is the most dif­fi­cult thing to achieve because trust is nev­er tak­en for grant­ed: it must be built, it must be worked on. With the Sci­en­tif­ic Advi­so­ry Board, we have tried to do our best to enlight­en our fel­low cit­i­zens and politi­cians to main­tain this trust, by pro­vid­ing the right infor­ma­tion in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, which requires com­plex reflex­ive work.

The response of Euro­pean democ­ra­cies to the health cri­sis was the most effec­tive of all.

As with the “health pass”, the trans­la­tion of the experts’ word into polit­i­cal action has raised the hack­les of a num­ber of cit­i­zens. I approach this sit­u­a­tion with a cer­tain degree of humil­i­ty. First of all, it’s not easy to make polit­i­cal deci­sions. We always tend to accuse politi­cians of var­i­ous and sundry ills, but in France we are lucky enough to still have a real demo­c­ra­t­ic vision, which is not the case in all coun­tries. Our gov­ern­ments have ensured that their deci­sions are informed by the word of experts, whose sole role is to advise. In my opin­ion, the dis­tinc­tion between the respon­si­bil­i­ties of each par­ty was very clear. 

What’s more, all the data pro­vid­ed by the var­i­ous inter­na­tion­al teams work­ing on the con­se­quences of this pan­dem­ic, using the loss of life expectan­cy of a nation as a mark­er, and com­par­ing mor­tal­i­ty linked to Covid and mor­tal­i­ty unre­lat­ed to the cri­sis, point­ed in the same direc­tion. Con­trary to what was said at the start of the cri­sis, the response of democ­ra­cies, and in par­tic­u­lar Euro­pean democ­ra­cies, was ulti­mate­ly the most effec­tive of all.

The loss of life expectan­cy dur­ing the first two years of the Covid-19 cri­sis in Europe varies between ‑3 months in France, com­pared with ‑6 months in Ger­many and ‑9 months in Spain and the UK, and even ‑1.2 and ‑1.5 years of loss of life expectan­cy for East­ern Euro­pean coun­tries, which are among those that vac­ci­nat­ed the least in Europe. In the Unit­ed States, a demo­c­ra­t­ic and high­ly inno­v­a­tive nation, if only in the field of vac­cines, the loss of lifes­pan was ‑2.6 years. Why such a huge dif­fer­ence? How can we explain it? By the dif­fi­cul­ty of access to health­care for the most vul­ner­a­ble and poor­est pop­u­la­tions, in par­tic­u­lar African-Amer­i­cans and His­pan­ics. This issue of access to care, and there­fore of cov­er­ing the costs for the most vul­ner­a­ble, is an essen­tial fac­tor to con­sid­er. This shows that we can­not pit research and inno­va­tion against pub­lic health mea­sures, or indi­vid­ual free­doms against col­lec­tive freedoms.

Isn’t public distrust of science on the rise? 

I’m not a spe­cial­ist in the his­to­ry of sci­ence, but I think this mis­trust has always exist­ed. Sci­ence and sci­en­tif­ic research have always pro­gressed with dif­fi­cul­ty. Doubts, whether they emanate from indi­vid­u­als or insti­tu­tions – includ­ing the Catholic Church, which has refut­ed sev­er­al major dis­cov­er­ies through­out its his­to­ry – have always been part of this com­plex rela­tion­ship between politi­cians, sci­en­tists and cit­i­zens. Above all, soci­ety’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools have changed con­sid­er­ably: social net­works have giv­en a new dimen­sion to opin­ion and giv­en it much greater weight than before.

In fact, during this health crisis, we’ve seen an upsurge in conspiracy theories.

Social media have large­ly inter­fered in the rela­tion­ships between sci­en­tists, politi­cians, and the gen­er­al pub­lic. This demo­c­ra­t­ic tri­an­gle is per­haps becom­ing a square in which the new part­ner is the social net­works. This leads me to make two observations.

In my opin­ion, social media have large­ly inter­fered in the rela­tion­ship between sci­en­tists, politi­cians, and citizens.

First of all, and I think this may not have been made suf­fi­cient­ly clear dur­ing this cri­sis, we need to make every­one under­stand what research uncer­tain­ty is. Research is built by ask­ing ques­tions and try­ing to find answers. Social net­works have not con­tributed, to say the least, to this recog­ni­tion of uncer­tain­ty in science.

The sec­ond point is that sci­ence does have a cer­tain num­ber of cer­tain­ties. I don’t mind peo­ple say­ing what­ev­er they want on social media, but the earth is round. If you put your hand in a pan of boil­ing water, you can say what­ev­er you like on Twit­ter, but you’ll get burnt. Today there are sev­er­al sol­id sci­en­tif­ic foun­da­tions that absolute­ly must be pro­tect­ed from the ‘con­spir­a­cy’ of social net­works and the dis­in­for­ma­tion to which they contribute. 

What about scientists? How can we improve their engagement with political decision-makers?

They are trained to do sci­ence and pub­lish their work, not nec­es­sar­i­ly to com­mu­ni­cate their exper­tise. This is where we need to improve com­mu­ni­ca­tion and train­ing with­in these dif­fer­ent spheres to move towards greater mutu­al understanding.

Interview by Jean Zeid

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