Following, listening, or genuinely engaging?

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from BPS Conference 2021, with a symposium featuring psychologists who have been a part of the UK pandemic response.

What’s it like to advise government in times of covid? We heard direct from some of the voices who have featured so prominently on the airwaves and in our newspapers over the course of the pandemic. Professor John Drury (University of Sussex) took us through the process for early contributions of SPI-B, one of a number of subgroups that feeds into SAGE. Published reports were initially heavily redacted, i.e. ‘not taking the behavioural science advice that transparency was vital to winning trust’. Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews) gave numerous examples of ‘false and counterproductive assumptions about the public’, and the ‘terrible mistakes’ made as a result of those assumptions. Research going right back to the impact of bombing on morale in World War Two has shown connection and solidarity in the face of major events, and a general attitude that is ‘remarkably steady and restrained’. We need to ‘listen to the public, treat them as an asset not a problem,’ Reicher said, and recognise that ‘resilience is a property of what happens between individuals’. 

So how do we get the ‘right psychology’ – admittedly crudely defined, Reicher said – to the right places. A Chief Psychological Officer? ‘I do believe it’s worth working inside government,’ Reicher said. ‘But behaviour is not a matter of psychology alone. The judgement of how important consequences are is a political decision, and we shouldn’t pretend it’s a scientific one. We should perhaps replace “follow the science” with “listen to science”.’

Professor Ann John, of Swansea University and a member of the government’s Technical Advisory Group, echoed the idea that advice is taken by policy makers into a wider context. And ‘size matters’ in terms of that context: relationships in Wales had been, she said, much closer. There has been a ‘real step change in the understanding of the importance of behavioural science’, and ‘trust in government in Wales has been consistently high’. Governments can legitimately hold and implement different views, John said, but there’s always the risk that variable restrictions may generate a sense of unfairness, potentially undermining adherence to rules. 

Professor Susan Michie (UCL), who set up SPI-B as a subgroup of SAGE back in 2009 in response to the swine flu pandemic, said it’s ‘great that it’s survived and increased in terms of diversity’. She opened with Philip Ball’s comments in The Guardian, that ‘scientists should not passively resign themselves to the “on tap” status assigned to them by Winston Churchill’. Michie admits a tension here: ‘On the one hand we are not elected officials, and are often unfamiliar with the policy context. But on the other, evidence doesn’t implement itself; policymakers often don’t understand the scientific advice nor how best to translate it; translation and implementation are themselves the subject of scientific enquiry. Shouldn’t social scientists be asked to advise on the translation process itself? Shouldn’t scientists work in partnership with policy makers?’ 

Whereas others like Sir Mark Walport have emphasised throughout the pandemic that ‘scientists advise, but politicians decide’, Michie clearly feels that scientists should also consider whether a policy is deliverable, and what might be the consequences. There’s even a role for considering how the policy fits with personal and political values, she said. Psychology is not just about what goes on inside your head, she reminded us. It is shaped by the social and material world, and psychologists can therefore have ‘quite a broad brief’, including learning from other disciplines. 

Michie has found ways of informing policy beyond formal government structures, including as a member of Independent SAGE, calling for openness and transparency for better understanding and decision making, engaging with the public and policy makers. Ultimately, she said, there ‘should be no “hard border” between scientists and policy makers… we need engagement at all stages of the translational pathway’.

Where next? Reicher warned that we still have ‘a narrative of blame and individual responsibility without support’. But for a positive note, he added that we are ‘starting to see local councils and voluntary bodies stepping in’, and therefore as psychologists we should do more to work with other organisations.

-       Catch up with BPS Conference 2021. Get access to talks from some of the greatest thinkers in psychology including 5 keynote presentations, 3 student stream talks and 3 symposia. Register for £50 – watch anytime in July. 

Find our coronavirus coverage, including contributions from several of the speakers in this symposium, here.

See also the recent letter in The Lancet, 'Mass infection is not an option', signed by psychologists including Drury, Reicher and Michie.

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