By Professor Marcel Jaspars

LAST year, The Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s National Academy, launched a review of international experiences of communication and public engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic. Working with eight countries to gather information and experiences, coupled with online meetings with experts and policy makers that span the globe, early discussions revealed key themes with several messages being very clear.

The research found that trust is critical between politicians and the public and with this, Government officials should be more willing to admit to, and learn from, their errors.

Another common area the research highlighted was that the pandemic has excluded segments of the public by not making information available in the right language or in the right way, and not enough financial support was provided to those self-isolating.

Communication between politicians and the nation needs to be two-way, not an authoritarian approach with politicians communicating "down" to a fragile public that needs to be protected. Collaboration between governments and their constituents needs to become much stronger, giving societies genuine input into how their country is run. This will increase understanding of, and compliance with, decisions made by politicians leading to better responses to future crises.

The public used social media to communicate with each other during the pandemic with misinformation and fear being spread around crucial messaging, such as risks associated with vaccines and its effects. Several countries engaged social media influencers to help correct misinformation, or to prevent it spreading, often using humour to combat rumour.

What has been clear throughout the pandemic is that an increased understanding of science by politicians and the public is essential to be able to be able to respond effectively to a rapidly changing landscape.

Scientific information should be communicated in a way that highlights that it is a process not a product and in turn, as our understanding of a problem increases, our responses to it may change.

Science literacy education needs to begin at primary school and continue throughout people’s lives, enabling them to make informed decisions around new events. Likewise, politicians need to admit their limitations in understanding science and must base decisions on openly available scientific information and advice. We desperately need more scientists in government who can effect this type of change from the inside.

Finally, the way that risk and uncertainty is communicated and understood must change. A noticeable shift happened in the media during the pandemic. Media platforms started to engage experts in statistics and risk analysis to explain the meaning of data presented to the public, and this is to be commended.

Building science and an appreciation of risk and uncertainty into our education and daily lives means that we can all better interpret events occurring in our lives and react to them in the most appropriate way. There will be many lessons to learn from the last 18 months, this is just one of them. But if we are to better cope with a future event, we must heed them, and make change a constant.

The report is available at:

Professor Marcel Jaspars is VP International, RSE