[edit]

When Scientists Work with Government

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at The Leader’s Institute Interview on Dec 16, 2020

Abstract

  • The Delve initiative is a group that was convened by the Royal Society to help provide data-driven insights about the pandemic, with an initial focus on exiting the first lockdown and particular interest in using the variation of strategies across different international governments to inform policy.

  • Drawing from a multidisciplinary team of domain experts in policy, public health, economics, education, immunology, epidemiology, and social science, alongside statisticians, mathematicians, computer scientists and machine learning scientists, DELVE set out to provide advice and analysis that could feed into live policy decisions.

  • The main philosophy of the Delve group was to follow the “Supply Chain of Ideas”, connecting scientific evidence to policy questions.

Lessons Learned

Multidisciplinarity and uncertainty

  • The response needed for policy questions is complex and uncertain. It requires a multi-disciplinary response. 

  • Multidisciplinarity brings challenges and opportunities. Among the challenges are the issues with different nomenclature for related technical ideas. The use of jargon in specific fields, and assumptions around what is canonical knowledge vs what specifics need to be elucidated.

  • The solution for these challenges is a motto: there are no stupid questions. Each member of the Action Team has been selected for their talents, they should never feel embarassed to ask for clarification or deeper understanding from another member of the team. Naturally, a consequence of this is each member of the team should be prepared to explain their ideas to others clearly, and using different terminologies.

  • A bear-trap is assumption by intimidation. The idea that because someone is technically expert, that they can’t make a foolish error. In fact, the opposite is often true, by being too focussed on a specific technical idea, we can all miss something that is obvious to those who don’t have our individual deep technical understanding. The DELVE aim was to do our very best to avoid this bear-trap.

Convening

  • Policy decisions often have some urgency which means the normal processes of scientific proof do not have time to take their course. These decisions are often about balancing long term versus short term uncertainties.

  • Delivering a rapid response requires the ability to quickly convene teams from across disciplines (and often institutions) around a key question. 

  • Right from the start, data was at the heart of what DELVE does, but the reality is that little can be done without domain expertise and often the data we required wasn’t available. However, even when it is not present, the notion of what data might be needed can also have a convening effect, bringing together multiple disciplines around the policy questions at hand. 

  • Recommendations from our most recent report suggest that more effort needs to be placed into working in this manner in normal circumstances, so that when an emergency occurs we are better prepared to deal with the questions we face.

What you would do differently or change

There is lots of hope for the role data science and AI could play, but we’re still a way off from being AI-ready. Further attention is needed on some of the foundational issues around data use – access, skills, culture – before we can begin to talk in earnest about deploying AI.

A recent report on data readiness for emergencies made recommendations aiming to improve the UK’s ability to use insights from data science to respond rapidly and effectively to national crises. These included:

  • Government should update the statutory objective of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to accommodate trustworthy access to happenstance data to generate national and local statistics. Such statistics are required on very short time frames to facilitate fast decision-making for the nation in the rapidly evolving circumstances of a national emergency.

  • The ONS should collaborate closely with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to formulate a standardized qualification for data access, equivalent to a ‘data driving license’ that would demonstrate trustworthiness and ensure that qualified experts can get rapid access to different data types with the appropriate standardized ethical and legal training in place.

  • Government should fund interdisciplinary pathfinder data projects. These projects should require collaborations between industries, run across government departments and integrate different academic expertise. Each project should target a specific policy question. Beyond the pathfinder role, the projects will leave a legacy in the form of expertise and guidance in understanding the stages of the data-sharing pipeline. Priority areas for pathfinder projects include:

    • Nowcasting of economic metrics

    • Mobility data

Highlights

Delve Reports

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  1. Facemasks 4th May 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020d)
  2. Test, Trace, Isolate 27th May 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020g)
  3. Nosocomial Infections 6th July 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020f)
  4. Schools 24th July 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020a)
  5. Economics 14th August 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020c)
  6. Vaccines 1st October 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020e)
  7. Data 24th November 2020 (The DELVE Initiative 2020b)

Thanks!

For more information on these subjects and more you might want to check the following resources.

References

The DELVE Initiative. 2020a. “Balancing the Risks of Pupils Returning to Schools.” The Royal Society. https://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/07/24/balancing-the-risk-of-pupils-returning-to-schools.html.

———. 2020b. “Data Readiness: Lessons from an Emergency.” The Royal Society. http://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/11/24/data-readiness-lessons-from-an-emergency.html.

———. 2020c. “Economic Aspects of the Covid-19 Crisis in the Uk.” The Royal Society. https://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/08/14/economic-aspects-of-the-covid19-crisis-in-the-uk.html.

———. 2020d. “Face Masks for the General Public.” The Royal Society. https://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/05/04/face-masks-for-the-general-public.html.

———. 2020e. “SARS-Cov-2 Vaccine Development & Implementation; Scenarios, Options, Key Decisions.” The Royal Society. http://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/10/01/covid19-vaccination-report.html.

———. 2020f. “Scoping Report on Hospital and Health Care Acquisition of Covid-19 and Its Control.” The Royal Society. https://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/07/06/nosocomial-scoping-report.html.

———. 2020g. “Test, Trace, Isolate.” The Royal Society. https://rs-delve.github.io/reports/2020/05/27/test-trace-isolate.html.