In 2020, more than 100,000 academic articles have been published on COVID-19. The public, the media and civil society also covered the issue. Yet, international and national decision-makers need to make decisions under time constraints and uncertainty. The problem is not just the speed of knowledge synthesis, it is also about how decision-makers deal with the uncertainty that comes with such stressful situations. The very same challenge is true for decisions related to complex issues across the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

On 1 April 2021, the Geneva Science-Policy Interface (GSPI) and the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance (SI) organised a panel discussion as part of a larger series entitled “From Science To Practice: Research And Knowledge To Achieve The SDGs” . This series aimed to foster the use of science in policy to make progress on global development goals and to support engagement at the 2021 High-Level Political Forum.

The panel focused less on information supply and more on the processing of this information by decision-makers. It asked the question “how do policy actors deal with information overload in a limited time and how can they do better?”

The session, moderated by Moira Faul (Executive Director, NORRAG), featured experts with various professional backgrounds that have used behavioural sciences and reflected on behavioural processes of decision-making under complexity.

Chiara Varazzani (Lead Behavioural Scientist, OECD) delivered a keynote about the practical use of behavioural sciences to change the way we supply information to policymakers. She stressed the importance to simplify information supplied to decision makers and to reduce complexity to support decisions in need of quick turnarounds, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. She illustrated some very practical tools that could be used for this purpose.

Maxime Stauffer (Science-Policy Officer, GSPI) then provided a complementary view on the use of behavioural science to equip instead of nudge policymakers to navigate complexity and time pressure. In his presentation, he conveyed the thinking that underlies this type of decision-making support and teased a training developed by the GSPI and SI focused on empowering decision-makers to deal with complex situations and evidence.

Then followed an insightful exchange with a set of experts with deep knowledge in governmental dynamics who reacted to the previous interventions.

Jill Rutter (Senior Fellow, Institute for Government), stressed the important of transparency in public decision-making, as a necessary step to foster trust and buy-in by citizens affected by government decisions. This includes being upfront about biases and uncertainty that may exist at the time of a decision.

Priyanka Saksena (Health System Adviser, World Health Organization) walked us through different types of evidence and the need to filter the quality of such evidence more quickly in crisis situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. She also stressed the need to recognise biases that may happen in groups where the loudest voices prevail, and the need to distinguish opinions from evidence-based guidance.

David Mair (Head of Unit, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre), illustrated some human biases that undermine evidence-based policies, such as the tendency to favour evidence that confirm our deepest convictions and values. He also stressed the importance to involve citizens more actively in scientific and policy considerations learning to government decisions, recognising the diversity of expertise that exists in society.

Overall, the session offered a stark reminder of the human and behavioural dynamics that underpin many of the key decisions that affect societies. Crisis situations like COVID-19 only increase the pressure to take decisions under severe constraints, and reinforce some of the biases and shortcuts that may lead to sub-optimal decisions.

Complexity should be embraced, as a reflection of realities we are facing. But we should use tools to have simplified but not simplistic information and evidence. Transparency in the science-policy-society relationship is also essential to promote trust and involvement of stakeholders.

In case you missed it, you can see the full event below: