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 What does ‘follow the science’ really mean? Exploring the relationships between evidence and policy in the context of COVID-19
May 2020

Professor Agnes Binagwaho, University of Global Health Equity, Rwanda (discussant)

Professor Paul Cairney, University of Stirling, Scotland  (discussant)

Dr Lucia D'Ambruoso, University of Aberdeen, Scotland and University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa (discussant)

Professor George Boyne, University of Aberdeen, Scotland (chair)

This discussion explored the meaning of the mantra ‘follow the science’ in public policy responding to COVID-19. Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen moderated a discussion between Professor Agnes Binagwaho globally recognised for work in HIV/AIDS and child health, Vice Chancellor the University of Global Health Equity and former Minister of Health in Rwanda (2011-2016), together with internationally renowned political scientist Professor Paul Cairney from Stirling University and Dr Lucia D'Ambruoso, Senior Lecturer in Global Health at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.


The discussion explored three main ideas.


Firstly: there is no such thing as ‘the evidence’. Instead, there is a large number of scientists using different methods to ask different questions on different aspects of the issue and the evidence produced is open to different interpretations.


Secondly: policymakers can only pay attention to a limited amount of evidence and often have very little understanding, influence and control in policymaking environments.


Finally: where do we go from here? The current public health emergency demands radical cooperative action from a range of individuals (politicians, scientists, health planners, healthcare workers, the media and public) over prolonged periods under conditions of acute uncertainty.


These simple ideas help us to get real about ‘evidence-based policy-making’ and develop the necessary awareness for more collective and constructive working in future.


Professor Agnes Binagwaho is a paediatrician, Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity and Senior Advisor to the Director General of the World Health Organisation.

Professor Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling and specialist in politics, public policy and how policy studies can explain the use of evidence in politics and policy.


Dr Lucia D'Ambruoso is Senior Lecturer in global health at the Aberdeen Centre for Health Data Science, University of Aberdeen, and an Honorary researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

Professor George Boyne became Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen in 2018. He is a world-leading expert on the performance of public sector organisations.