NewsWho is in charge during the coronavirus pandemic?

Professor Scott Cunningham, School of Government and Public Policy

This post is about a new, interdisciplinary degree offered at the University of Strathclyde, the MSc Technology Policy & Management. Before talking you through the degree however, I’d like to discuss an issue that demonstrates the significance and urgency of this field of study.  During the coronavirus pandemic, some commentators have been left asking, “Who’s in charge?”

Scientific advisory boards state that their advice is only advisory – the politicians are in charge and make the decision. On the contrary many politicians decried their choice and claimed they are only following the science. This mutual finger-pointing left at least some wondering who is actually in charge of COVID policy. There is a clear answer of how things ought to work, even if the practice may appear differently.

Scientists provide guidance concerning the scientific facts. Even if the facts are uncertain, or the science still emerging, the best a scientific advisor can hope to do is to provide clear, impartial and neutral facts. Some take this still further, suggesting that scientists help us appraise a range of feasible outcomes for government policy. However even if the available outcomes are clear, often very difficult choices remain.

In the coronavirus pandemic, these choices have often been described as lives versus the economy. On questions such as these a scientist cannot and should not weigh in. Such trade-offs in the pursuit of the public interest should be made by public officials. And for the consequences of such decisions publicly elected officials should be held accountable.

This ideal of scientific neutrality and public accountability often is not met. There are many modes of failure in this seemingly simple model of advice for science and technology policy. The design and provision of national bureaucracies is made in part to avoid such costly failures. And for any example such as this one concerning public health there are many, many more throughout the fields of science, technology and innovation.

The University of Strathclyde already plays a unique role in training professionals for industry, non-profit and government in the field of science and technology policy. And the university will be strengthening this role with the award of a new MSc in Technology Policy and Management. This cross-cutting degree offers leading courses in technology policy from all four Faculties of the university. The degree offers courses in design and systems thinking from Engineering, policy and regulation from the Humanities and Social Sciences, strategy and innovation from Business, and information processes from Science. Degrees such as this help anchor Strathclyde’s role as one of the world’s first universities of technology, and a place of useful learning.

To find out more about the MSc in Technology Policy and Management, please visit our website.