Journal article Open Access

The role of scientific output in public debates in times of crisis: A case study of the reopening of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic

Gabriela F. Nane; François van Schalkwyk; Jonathan Dudek; Daniel Torres-Salinas; Rodrigo Costas; Nicolas Robinson-Garcia

In exceptional circumstances such as health pandemics, it is to be expected that policy actions are supported by a balanced use of scientific information to support decision-making that impacts the lives of citizens. However, situations in which no scientific consensus has been reached due to either insufficient, inconclusive or contradicting findings place strain on governments and public organizations which are forced to take action under circumstances of uncertainty. In this chapter, we focus on the case of COVID-19, its effects on children and the public debate around the reopening of schools. The aim is to better understand the relationship between policy interventions in the face of an uncertain and rapidly changing knowledge landscape and the subsequent use of scientific information in public debates related to the policy interventions. Our approach is to combine scientific information from journal articles and preprints with their appearance in the popular media, including social media. First, we provide a picture of the different scientific areas and approaches, by which the effects of COVID-19 on children are being studied (e.g., transmission, infection, severity, etc.). This provides a snapshot of the scientific focus and priorities in relation to COVID-19 and children. Second, we identify news media and social media attention around the COVID-19 scientific output related to children and schools. We focus on policies and media responses in three countries: Spain, South Africa and the Netherlands. These countries have followed very different policy actions with regard to the reopening of schools and represent very different policy approaches to the same problem. We analyse the activity in (social) media around the debate between COVID-19, children and school closures by focusing on the use of references to scientific information in the debate. Finally, we analyse the dominant topics that emerge in the news outlets and the online debates. We draw attention to illustrative cases of miscommunication related to scientific output and conclude the chapter by discussing how information from scientific publication, the media and policy actions shape the public discussion in the context of a global health pandemic.

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