Article: Corona-proofing the governance system of scientific advice

The current state of emergency challenges us on many levels. Above all, it challenges the crisis preparedness and resilience of our institutions and their commitment to good governance. The value of scientific knowledge is underlined at a time when the health crisis caused by COVID19 demonstrates every day how deeply vulnerable is our society. Our foresight capacity in particular seems to be worthy of critical assessment. COVID19 is not, by definition, a black swan – a surprising and unforeseen event with far-reaching consequences – as epidemiologists around the world have been warning of the threat of a global pandemic for years – the Asian SARS outbreak in 2003 being the precursor. Warnings have been listened to, but perhaps not closely enough – unpreparedness in respect of implementing WHO guidance on the importance of mass testing and tracing is evident across many jurisdictions.

Although differences exist between initial national responses to the pandemic, what they all share is a reliance on ‘bounded rationality’ because the facts of the matter are not clear and decision makers’ preference structures may not be transparent. Decision makers do not have accurate information about those infected and those with asymptomatic or mild symptoms of the disease while the temporal and spatial impact of social restraint measures will inevitably remain sub-optimised without knowledge of the prevalence of the pandemic.

A different kind of ‘ignorance’ arises from the fact that we have little evidence-based understanding or living memory of the social, political, and economic implications of such social distancing. We seem to be sailing into relatively unknown waters. From a public health perspective, the “flatten the curve” tactic is justified. On the other hand, we do not know what pressure will be placed on people and families who are already vulnerable, for example, from prolonging the mitigation measures.

In political life, ignorance is seldom an excuse for indecision, through cautionary principles certainly seem advisable. Solutions are required, even if their appropriateness can only be judged ex post. Bad choices can be undone, but lessons can be learned from them. While the quality, quantity and substantive evidence base of data production are undoubtedly still undergoing testing, the societal challenge is particularly relevant to the ability of our decision-making machinery to process research data and respond to decision-making pressures on an informed basis. It is not just about the availability of scientific information, but also about its usability. Ensuring foresight and knowledge production is not a project but a process.

Experiences with scientific advice within Finland and elsewhere

Practices and support structures for scientific advice and informed decision-making in Finland are relatively well advanced and even recently new initiatives have been developed (e.g. Chancellor Emeritus Kari Raivio’s report 2014, the government’s research and assessment activity instrument in place for over 5 years now, as well as the ongoing Sofi project run by the Finnish academies of science). The British system, in which scientific advice is personified by the position of Chief Scientific Advisors and scientific and decision-making bodies, has often been taken as a point of reference and viewed as the ideal model; in particular, Sage, a kind of network of scientific information and advisory committees that feeds information into decision-making, has regularly been referenced).

The Finnish application of this model has seen the introduction of ​​ministry-specific research directors and scientific panels, something which may be more suited to addressing systemic challenges than the administrative silos of yesteryear. In an emerging system, scientific advice is commendably designed to meet the challenges of phenomenon-driven and systemic problems. In the context of COVID19, it is clear that the answers to the epidemiological dimensions of the crisis emerge from the community of medical experts, but in the challenging special circumstances of teleworking, quarantine and home schooling, we may also need information on how to ensure resilience by supporting families, businesses and communities. This provides ample opportunities to create new forms of research interaction and collective knowledge creation between the research community and the policy-makers. In early April, for instance, the Helsinki Graduate School of Economics launched a collaborative effort to create a situation room, a real-time analytics centre for corona impacts (“Who does Korona hit hardest? A rare project is starting in Finland that will reveal the depth of the economic crisis to researchers in almost real time” , YLE NEWS, 7th April 2020)

Selective use of information challenges legitimacy

All governments are faced with tremendous pressure to find the best ways to respond to the crisis. The advice of the BIT (the UK’s Behavioural Science Advisory Unit) in relation to other scientific advice raised some questions, especially in the early stages when its role and the knowledge base they provided, were particularly highlighted. While it may be controversial perhaps to suggest that the scientific advisory body SAGE was side-lined in the context of an exceptional medical crisis, the initial weight given to the behavioural science base in the epidemiological crisis was criticised.

In the British model, the knowledge base for decision-making and modelling is, in principle, very transparent. In the event of a corona-type crisis, anyone can access the material here. The Chinese made their findings internationally available at the end of January and epidemiological calculations were already available as soon as the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was announced. It is difficult to assess from the outside what information has become available and what weight it has been assigned in the modelling, let alone decision-making. Doubts that decisions were made first and that informed support was sought only afterwards are particularly problematic for the realisation of the ideal models of informed decision-making, though consistent with the notion of bounded-rationality and with much of the related academic policy studies thinking. LINK: (

Lessons in operational capacity

Decision-making based on the best multidisciplinary knowledge is under constant pressure. Nor should the pressure on decision-makers be underestimated in a situation where decisions under ‘bounded rationality’ conditions have to be made, taking into account the whole relevant and available knowledge base and giving way to the process of interpretation in a situation where the pressure to make decisions quickly is enormous. The first lesson from the British examples could be that perhaps the most important thing is not the system’s ability to produce scientific information and ‘feed’ it into the decision-making process but rather, the ability to make wise decisions based on incomplete information.

Responding to a crisis by building a systemic understanding is not possible using shortcuts or easy solutions. The preferences of the decision-maker can challenge even the highest quality advisory system. Operating models created under normal conditions may not work as expected in crisis situations, if they have not been previously simulated. The COVID19 crisis is unusual however as there have been, already from an early stage, tested models and real time data available from China. For a crisis, COVID19 has been unusual because the data was there and the modelling was there to be used. COVID19 is – after Rumsfeld – a ‘known unknown’ not a complete mystery ‘unknown unknown’. Procedures were in place to guide decision-making faced with the crisis, but the problem was that it took a while to work out – at each national level – how the public health and economic priorities could be balanced. This is also why the current crisis is such a powerful test for anticipatory governance and empathetic and responsible leadership.

Proactive management and adequate diversity

The practices of scientific advice-giving are part of the so-called proactive management approach that builds preparedness for difficult future crisis situations. To support decision-making, best practices, tools and operating models are compiled for the future, combining knowledge-based technologies and digital solutions, identifying which tool and method is most appropriate in different circumstances. The aim is to avoid recourse to any single method or tool of guidance, be it budgetary or regulatory guidance, behavioural science or scientific advice. In the GOVERNANCE 2020 project, we are also testing the application of Ashby’s law, so-called; the law of sufficient diversity in societal decision-making. According to Ashby’s law, the diversity within an organisation must correspond to the diversity of the environment, i.e. the solution of a social problem must correspond to the diversity of the problem itself: simple solutions for simple problems and more complex solutions for systemic and complex problems. Decision-making must be seen as having many options at its disposal and functioning as a system, making the best possible use of the innovative tools and methods that are appropriate to each situation and societal problem, while being responsible and transparent, in accordance with the principles of good governance.

From smartness to wisdom

Political decision-making and the training of officials must be extremely flexible and crisis-resistant. This also requires a stronger anchoring of expert knowledge in all decision-making processes, without requiring special space or readiness. As has also been said in recent weeks, although crises may be the new norm (in respect of the ongoing climate crisis), recourse to exceptional laws cannot become a basic assumption in terms of responding. Nevertheless, anticipation must be used to prepare for a variety of everyday problems. If society drifts along reactively instead of anticipating crises, it may succumb to the tyranny of exceptional circumstances and eventually towards authoritarianism. (Yle News March 29, 2020: Emissions are now falling by the rumble, but is the coronavirus good news for climate change? On the contrary, says the researcher, “This is a scary lesson.”) Anticipatory capacity is at the heart of good management. Otherwise, decision-making loses its flexibility and shifts to a responsive mode where only fires are extinguished.

The ability of a society to gather, combine and deploy knowledge in order to make informed decisions based on a diverse, even contradictory, knowledge base; to make room for all relevant information, emphasising the most relevant and critical disciplines and forms of information production in each situation, while taking into account the human dimensions of the crisis, is a key governance asset. Not only will the ability of science to provide answers, and the ability of decision-makers to make decisions based on them, be tested but so also will various aspects of system management and control, such as predictability, systematicity, noise consultation and the ability to present and interpret relevant information in a sufficiently diverse context. The ‘noise’ element in particular remains plentiful. Indeed, Isaac Asimov is said to have said “the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. In these corona-ravaged times, this wisdom of our governance is certainly tested.


The authors are part of the STEERING2020 – From Regulatory and Resource Management to Systems navigation -project, which is undertaken as part of the government’s research and assessment activity (VN TEAS) in 2020, examining governance practices and solutions, seeking to identify and learn from the best international practices in governance.

Kaisa Lähteenmäki-Smith (Phd, political Science) works as a leading expert at MDI. She has previously worked as a scientific expert at VNK and as a leading expert at Sitra, working on themes such as experimental governance and evidence-informed policy and phenomenon-based leadership practice.

Petri Uusikylä (Phd, political science) is a partner at Frisky&Anjoy and a member of the Complexity Research Group of the University of Vaasa. He is the Chairperson for the Finnish Section of the International Institute of Management Sciences (IIAS). He specializes in the evaluation of complex systems related issues.

Harri Jalonen (Phd, knowledge management) works as a senior lecturer at Turku University of Applied Sciences. He has studied e.g. knowledge of management opportunities and bottlenecks in the public and private in private sector organizations.