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  • Einat Elazari

Epistemic Communities in Times of COVID-19: The Key for a More Effective and Legitimate Governance?

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis emphasizes why it is essential to have subject-matter experts in the decision-making process at every governing level.

“Epistemic communities” is a term that was famously coined by Peter Haas in 1992 in his article “Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination.” In this article, Haas describes epistemic communities as “a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain or issue-area.”

While Haas’ article was widely acclaimed (and also criticized) in the world of international relations, it seems that many governing entities, especially at the state level, have not implemented its core principle in their regular decision-making processes.

In 2020, the outbreak COVID-19 amplified a deep cross-sectoral crisis worldwide, mainly in terms of public trust. The pandemic and its impact highlighted the importance of re-examining the need in epistemic communities as a coherent part of each decision-making system in all public governing entities.

Too much politics, far less credible data and science

The outbreak of COVID-19 produced varied responses and decisions of countries to the pandemic. In many countries, governments and leaders were accused, quite rightly, of incorporating too much politics and not enough research and data in their decision-making processes regarding the response and action on how to combat the pandemic.

In some states, there was an apparent marginalization of scientists and knowledge communities by politicians for different reasons: electoral considerations, upcoming elections, the impact of pressure groups on the government, and more. In other words, the pandemic showed which leaders listened to scientists and other experts, which did so partially, and which did not listen at all.

In a broader context, the COVID-19 crisis highlighted an even bigger issue: almost every decision at the state/public level – whether about health, public transportation, pension money, etc. – does not necessarily involve the relevant experts’ community and therefore misses large pieces of data and insights related to the appropriate topic. Sometimes, this knowledge gap has grave consequences. In some cases, this marginalization is intended (for political reasons). In some cases, the decision-making process mechanism to address this essential need is lacking.

Fake news and public mistrust increase individual and public vigilance

Research already confirms that fake news spread six times quicker than credible, scientific information on the internet and social media.

Faced with many sources and opinions and without the ability to distinguish their level of credibility (and whether they’re fake or not), individuals and groups in many places and countries are increasingly feeling confused, lost, and disconnected from their governments and their leadership. Especially in crises like the COVID-19 crisis, fake news can increase vigilance among the public worldwide.

With this in mind, there is enormous importance on a data-driven decision-making process on any given topic. As talented as one may be, no decision-maker can do this work by themselves, neither can a group of ministers nor personal advisors.

Public peace and safety should be in the center

To adequately address this challenge, thorough and well-thought actions are needed at every level of authority around the world: international, national, and municipal. The goal of these actions is to set public peace and safety as a top priority.

A-political groups must be included in the decision-making process to ensure scientists and expert are involved in the discussed topic. There must be transparency regarding the entire process, including the data presented and used in it. The public must know that there are entities that represent credible information and facts. These entities must be independent, with no political affiliation, and immune to any political pressure.

Why and how the epistemic regime goes beyond the time of COVID-19

Like in many other domains, the COVID crisis emphasizes that many things do not work or are no longer acceptable in the decision-making process at almost any authoritative level. Yet COVID-19 is just one case study. Trends like climate change and globalization are also relevant examples of that discussion. Therefore, governments must shape permanent mechanisms that provide epistemic communities more room and weight in the decision-making realm.

For any given issue, a multi-disciplinary group of experts should be part of this community. The COVID-19 crisis needs doctors, epidemiologists, medical experts, vaccine experts, psychologists, data analysts, data scientists, etc. to be part of such a community. The same goes for any other domain with its relevant subject-matter experts.

More data and relevant experience, fewer uneducated assumptions

Any group of experts must include relevant subject-matter experts who possess experience and appropriate education in that domain. An essential addition to any group must be data analysts who can provide enough data to validate any argument and perform accurate and relevant analysis of that data. The discussion must revolve around data, facts, proven experience, and not uneducated opinions, ideas, and electoral-based decisions.

Anchoring the role of epistemic communities in governance

One of the biggest questions about the role of epistemic communities is who should anchor their role in the decision-making process and how. Should it a constitutional demand? A norm? Perhaps it is the digital world (like large online networks of communities of experts) that is the best promoter and platform to showcase their importance?

Perhaps it will be public demand that will translate into laws and regulations that set clear and mandatory work mechanisms, with epistemic communities having a bigger role in any governing authority.

COVID-19 won’t be here forever, but the lessons learned from it should stay with us and receive proper attention. One of these lessons is that epistemic communities should be part of almost any policy area’s decision-making process.

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