An Independent Panel on COVID-19, Science, Uncertainty and Policy

by , | Jun 11, 2020

This week has seen a lot of noise (and very little signal) about the WHO’s communications over asymptomatic transmission. Two things are certain:

1. There is a communications challenge around COVID-19. Messages about what we know, and what we should do, are not clearly shared and reproduced.

2. This challenge stems from a fragmenting public:science:policy interface. Policymakers can’t communicate science to the public. Scientists don’t communicate science well to policymakers (who don’t listen to much, but that’s another problem). The public has other ways of understanding problems than science.

“There is a communications challenge around COVID-19”

These waters run deep. Science trades in uncertainty as much as certainty. Politicians balance many interests – selfish and selfless, short-term and far-sighted. People are seldom persuaded when facts are rammed down their throats, despite the enduring appeal of the deficit model.

And they are dangerous. Below, lurk the sea monsters of the increased public distrust of institutions and science, a distrust that is fuelled by disinformation from states, the folly of some of our leaders, and anti-vaccination movements and conspiracy mongers from left and right.

“This pandemic is still only getting started”

And the storm is intensifying. The speed of scientific discovery is dizzying but, inevitably, mistakes have been made. When scientists speculate, some journalists will inevitably distort. And COVID-19 will never resemble a lab experiment – its complexity is rooted in how humans and our societies interact with this virus.

As scholars of the relationship between science and society have warned us, uncertainty inevitably proliferates, “the challenge is how best to cope with these uncertainties.”

Murky waters indeed. But navigable. We’re at the stage in the emergency where people understand what’s going wrong but think it’s too late to fix it. It’s not. This pandemic is still only getting started.

“WHO should immediately set up an Independent Panel on COVID-19, Uncertainty, Science and Policy

We propose that WHO should immediately set up an Independent Panel on COVID-19, Uncertainty, Science and Policy (CUSP – everything needs a good acronym). The panel should have 14 members, grouped as follows:

5 epidemiologists, one from each major continent, all of whom must be current employees of universities or hospital systems, to avoid government capture.

3 policymakers, drawn from existing international civil servants – to avoid government nominations.

2 data scientists, including one expert on gender and data, because the burden of pandemics falls disproportionately on women, and because the world is abysmal at recognising how often it uses the default male for data.

2 ethicists – if governments had more ethicists on staff, the world would be different, so we’re not so worried about capture here.

2 science communications professionals – a journalist from one of the best global science publications and someone with expertise in the interface between science and society.

The panel should be supported by a secretariat of five staff, and a significant budget for multi-lingual communications support, exempt from WHO’s official vetting processes.

It should have a rotating chair, who is anonymous to the public. Sad as it is that we have to say this, the panel absolutely must be gender equitable.

The panel should meet every week, and produce an update every two weeks, and a major update every two months. Its main job would be to talk to publics. And through them to their governments. And to become a voice that is trusted in the months and years ahead.

That’s it. That’s the proposal.

Rahul Chandran writes here in his personal capacity.


  • Rahul Chandran

    Rahul Chandran was the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, and has previously worked at the intersection of peacekeeping, humanitarian, and development efforts across the globe as well as systems reform and strategic planning efforts at the United Nations. 

Prior to this, he was the Deputy Director of the Center on International Cooperation, the Director of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Programme, and an advisor to the United Nations Foundation, the OECD, the Clinton Global Initiative and numerous other institutions. He has previously worked in civil rights, in documentary film, and on a number of start-ups. He writes here in his personal capacity.

  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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