Negotiating evidence in exceptional times: The malleability of evidence in academic and public discourses regarding Covid-19 vaccinations

Volkswagen Stiftung: Corona Crisis and Beyond – Perspectives for science, scholarship and society

Lauren Cubellis, PhD, MPH

Sheena F. Bartscherer, MA

This project considers how the evidence and ethics of research and political discourse are negotiated by scientists, policy makers, and the general public in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has generated an unprecedented situation in which the pressure on data to inform, guide, and correct emerging policy procedures is immense. At the same time, this data is multi-faceted and malleable, sourced from a wide-variety of experts, clinics, and research settings, and moves quickly, influencing institutional responses at state and local levels. The speed at which research on Covid-19 is being produced is both a reflection of and response to the sense of urgency created by a crisis situation. While crisis situations can serve to generate innovation in the face of uncertainty, this innovative energy also challenges established protocols and best practices regarding the production and validation of new evidence. In the current crisis, the negotiation of emergent demands adaptable forms of evaluation and assessment, collaboration across scientific teams, and the rapid synthesis of often contradictory data. As the pandemic continues, research produced in the latter half of 2020 is already being questioned and revised, as the scientific picture of the virus continues to shift. This already complex process is further challenged by the speed at which public and political discourses have made use of emerging evidence regarding Covid-19.

One of the critical questions this project will ask is how such data are translated into actionable practices, and how the measure of such data is taken in terms of quality and legitimacy. What is the value of this data – in the sense that valuing is an ongoing practice of negotiation and justification – under conditions of intense uncertainty? How does the desire, across many levels of society, for positive outcomes influence the structures of research and data collection? What risks and orders of value or worth are being prioritized, and how and by whom are these decisions made under such conditions? Finally, how do scientists, health care providers, and policy makers understand themselves to be acting responsibly (or not) in the absence of a clear narrative around the significance of emerging 

Grounded in neopragmatist discourse analyses and interviews with scientists, policy makers, and the general public in Berlin, this project will address the complex task of understanding responses to emerging data on Covid-19 in the German capital and how these responses have changed and emerged over time. The method itself offers a standardized path to filtering out our interviewees’ argumentative patterns and their applied value systems, making them comparable across social positions, thus helping explain potential differences in public understanding and perception of information, through the differences in the argumentative composition of their public justifications. It will track the focus of Covid-19 related publications and scientific discourses, and how these emergent findings have played a role in public dissemination and social debates about the course of the pandemic. Vaccines – the unprecedented speed of their approval, the scale of their financing, and the sensitive and at times volatile debates regarding their use and uptake by the public, will constitute a central concern of the investigation. Long term goals include insights to the transparency of science and data practices in German institutions and understanding the collaborative terms of their use in current and future public health crises.