Uncomfortable science: How mathematical models, and consensus, come to be in public policy

Sociol Health Illn. 2022 Nov;44(9):1461-1480. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.13535. Epub 2022 Sep 20.


We explore messy translations of evidence in policy as a site of 'uncomfortable science'. Drawing on the work of John Law, we follow evidence as a 'fluid object' of its situation, also enacted in relation to a hinterland of practices. Working with the qualitative interview accounts of mathematical modellers and other scientists engaged in the UK COVID-19 response, we trace how models perform as evidence. Our point of departure is a moment of controversy in the public announcement of second national lockdown in the UK, and specifically, the projected daily deaths from COVID-19 presented in support of this policy decision. We reflect on this event to trace the messy translations of "scientific consensus" in the face of uncertainty. Efforts among scientists to realise evidence-based expectation and to manage the troubled translations of models in policy, including via "scientific consensus", can extend the dis-ease of uncomfortable science rather than clean it up or close it down. We argue that the project of evidence-based policy is not so much in need of technical management or repair, but that we need to be thinking altogether differently.

Keywords: COVID-19; evidence; evidence-based policy; mathematical models; scientific consensus; translation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Communicable Disease Control
  • Consensus
  • Humans
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Public Policy