Toespraak van minister Van Engelshoven bij congres 'Evidence for Policymakers', op 15 december 2020

Minister Van Engelshoven sprak tijdens het congres 'Evidence for Policymakers', op 15 december 2020. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Dear friends,

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Rutte said something that I’m sure sounded sensible to the academic or policy-maker in you.

In the spring, the Prime Minister said that our government would have to make 100 percent of its decisions with only 50 percent of the knowledge.

His phrase has been repeated many times, and you still hear it today. There is something intriguing about this phrase. Somehow it manages to both alarm and reassure us, all at the same time.

It’s alarming, because you’d rather hear that your country’s policymakers are basing their decisions on complete information. And of course ministers would prefer that scenario as well.

On the other hand, it’s reassuring that – despite the incomplete information – the government is taking action.

We acknowledge that the reality is extremely complex, but this government understands that despite the complexity, we have to pick a strategy as well.

Of course, you almost never have the luxury of having 100 percent knowledge of the consequences of a decision. That won’t come as a surprise to any politician, policy-maker or academic.

The coronavirus pandemic really proved us once again that you quite often have to settle for the information that is available.

At the same time, what I think is reassuring for everyone who deals with complex issues and incomplete information, is that we can now see that policy is being updated almost ‘live’. Our knowledge base is growing day by day, while we’re adjusting measures. When you think about it, that is simply evidence-based policy in action.

Although we now know a lot more about COVID-19, and the 50 percent I spoke about earlier keeps on rising, we definitely don’t yet know everything there is to know about this virus.

A pandemic, on the other hand, is by no means unprecedented. People all around the world have dealt with those before. What is unique in 2020 is the public’s detailed scrutiny of the search for a way out of the pandemic: the global search for a vaccine.

In our country, the entire adult population has put virologists, the Outbreak Management Team and the still growing chain of press conferences, under the microscope.

The scientific process, policy formulation and political decision-making now happen almost simultaneously. And all in the full glare of public attention. No generation before us has ever experienced anything like this.

Although everyone is following the progress that is being made, the pandemic is also dividing people. Anyone can catch the virus, but the suffering doesn’t affect everyone to the same degree.

COVID-19 is pushing us apart along quite a few of the traditional dividing lines.

The pandemic divides young and old, people on high and low incomes, churchgoers and non-believers. It divides people in cities, who live almost on top of one another, from those who have more space for themselves. Even the way we view the pandemic divides us, into people who have faith in science and in the scientific method, and people who loudly let us know they don’t. That last distinction is relevant to us, here, today.

Countless ground-breaking studies never make it onto the news at all, but this year, when scientific research into a vaccine was put on hold following irregularities in one test subject, that was ‘breaking news’.

The people who don’t trust science say: ‘You see? It’s not safe’, while the other group says: ‘It’s good that they’ve put the research on hold – because that’s how science works. I’m glad they’re sticking to the procedures, even though they’re under so much pressure.’

So the presence of the coronavirus, and the way it is handled, puts the relationship between scientists, policy-makers and the public under the spotlight.

An optimist would say: ‘Never before have so many Europeans been overcome by such a burning need to understand the unknown.’

Last April in the Netherlands, for example, Jaap van Dissel appeared on TV: a virologist who’s presence and judgements play a vital part in public debate. Nearly 8 million people turned on their televisions to watch him, live.

Since then, virtually every academic discipline, from psychology to sociology, has found its voice or is trying to be heard. I strongly believe it is important that we pay attention to all these scientific voices, while we also acknowledge that there may be days or weeks that one is a bit louder than the other.

At this point in time, science, and policies based on scientific evidence, have really gained momentum. Millions of people are watching, as our knowledge grows. While it may be growing bit by bit, every new insight takes us 1 step further.

We are heading into a spring and summer in which virtually every decision-maker will rely heavily and publicly on researchers. Those seasons will go down in history as a time when science led the way, and guided us out of the crisis.

When we look back, we will be relieved and thankful, although we will also see that the pandemic has cost us dearly. That is why it is important to mention today, that we still have an opportunity to add a silver lining to this pandemic. There’s a chance to help more people see and understand how science and evidence-based policy really work. That understanding should lead to growing faith in both science and policy.

Right now, anyone who wants to, has free tickets to the ultimate behind-the-scenes view. Scientists in all disciplines have the opportunity to show that they believe in full transparency about their process, efforts and results. This includes honesty about what they don’t know, don’t know yet, or what they think you should definitely ask their colleague instead of them.

Hopefully, that way, we will also see that the pandemic brought science, policy-makers and society into closer contact. And let’s hope that this way, fewer people think their personal opinions are just as reliable as proven facts. Let evidence-based policy not only be true for a few, but also believed and accepted by the many.  

Dear friends,

Scientists are familiar with standing on each other’s shoulders. And good policy-makers always keep at least one eye on their predecessors, and on the evidence they used to back up their policies.

Today, and in light of the year of vaccination that is about to start, I want to talk about someone who has left us, almost twenty-five years ago, at the age of seventy-four. Her name is Charlotte Hannik.

Not that many of you will have heard of her. But 9 out of every 10 Dutchman owe her a great deal. Actually, the 10th person as well.

After all, we possess an important part of our basic health thanks to Charlotte Hannik. Let me tell you why.

When Charlotte was a young doctor in the 1950s, she saw how diseases like diphtheria and scarlet fever could spread rapidly.

She decided to specialise in that field, and she took charge of an ambitious polio vaccination campaign. That campaign was successful, and Charlotte was successful in her field.

In fact, she still proves her success to us, almost 25 years after her death. Although she didn’t give herself literal immortality, she did reduce our risk of dying young.

The Dutch government’s vaccination policy, based on scientific evidence, is still making a difference to all our lives to this day.

Today’s National Vaccination Programme owes its unique organisation, which is a collaboration between local authorities, doctors and Municipal Health Services, partly to Charlotte Hannik’s work on public policy.

60 years later, that collaboration is still going strong. I wonder if Charlotte ever dared to hope for such an outcome.

The reason for sharing this story with you today, is to tell you that you might not always know how, or when, the policy you are working on will make a real difference.

Charlotte Hannik would not have waited to start working, until she had 100 percent of the knowledge either. In her day, trial and error was fact of life as well, and it led to something that we now celebrate as a huge success. Remember that, when this conference ends and work proves to be tough. It takes patience to produce sound, evidence-based policy; but it can make a big difference to a great many people, for decades to come.

As I said earlier, good policy is the best when the people it is designed to help actually believe in it. Charlotte Hannik must have felt the same way. She knew, down to the last detail, the questions and concerns parents could have about vaccination. And she was not afraid to be open about possible downsides of the vaccination programme.

She had the courage to inform people on disadvantages of policies she worked on, while presenting them the benefits at the same time.

I wish every policy-maker feels the courage needed to do that today.

For now, enjoy this conference. And stay healthy.

Thank you.