governance

[OPINION] How to save the IATF

Benjamin Vallejo Jr.
[OPINION] How to save the IATF

Illustration by Alejandro Edoria

'At present, science advice to the government is provided by independent science advisors, but that in the long run does not guarantee political effectiveness'

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) has to be saved.

The IATF was set up in response to the SARS-CoV-1, HN51 bird flu, and MERS pandemics of the 2000s, and its success is only measured by how it lessens infection rates if and when a pandemic hits us.

The IATF can only be saved by science. We have to agree on that. But it should also be science which properly takes into context the political culture of Filipinos.

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The first steps are to recognize the following  principles:

1) All governance challenges faced by governments worldwide require science.

2) A crisis cannot be managed without scientific information. 

3) Scientists will have to engage the government and the public effectively. 

The COVID-19 pandemic put front and center the role of science in virus containment. The undoubted evidence is in the quick development of vaccines. This shows that science can respond to a global crisis, but only with the decisiveness of governments. Countries such as New Zealand, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam have been largely successful thanks to the decisiveness of their political leaders, in tandem with their scientists providing advice.

Other countries such as the US were not as successful even if they had strong science communities. This is because government science advice requires trust. In a crisis, the science community must be trusted by the government and the scientists must trust the government in their crisis governance role. Both parties also have to recognize that this nexus is political. The consensus should be to recognize that each science-informed option has its political risk and gain, and that a scientific choice shall have to be made with managed political risks and gains. 

There should be science advisors both in government and outside of it. These science advisors should act as knowledge brokers, evidence synthesizers (COVID-19 has generated a lot of science that needs to be summarized for the public), and extended peer reviewers. Any advice that reaches the president should be reviewed and summarized so that the president could be informed enough to make decisions. A chief executive does not have time to read an academic paper, after all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given such engagements the opportunity to evolve from the ad hoc to the formal. The UK, Malaysia, New Zealand, and some EU countries have formal structures for crisis science advice. In the Philippines, we do not have these formal structures. The IATF is not a science advice body but a policy-creating one.

However, the IATF has to be effectively advised; the pandemic has shown that we have to develop these arrangements. At present, science advice to the government is provided by independent science advisors, but that in the long run does not guarantee political effectiveness.

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Fortunately, we have a law that provides the framework for institutionalized science advice. Republic Act No. 10121, or The Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010, institutes Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Councils at each level of governance. While these councils do not mandate a scientist to sit, amendments to the law may require one to sit on these councils. 

Congress may also legislate a law on government science advice for crises by institutionalizing workable structures suited to our political culture. This culture should be premised on trust and due recognition of scientists in governance. The government science advice law must also support the strengthening of the science community. One shortcoming is that we have so few scientists. At least they should be recognized as “science frontliners.”

If you want to save the IATF, there are ways. – Rappler.com

Dr. Benjamin Vallejo Jr. is a professor with the College of Science, University of the Philippines. He trained in science advice in pandemic emergencies with the International Network of Government Science Advice, and is an OCTA Research Fellow.