NSHow many lives could have been saved in the pandemic if the UK government had really “followed the science”? The question is unanswerable but hardly academic. We can’t say exactly how many lives were lost due to political delays to the shutdowns in the first and second waves, but the number is not small.
Would it have been better for us to hold scientists accountable for pandemic policy? Can we hand climate change policy over to them, too? In fact, will their evidence-based methods make them better leaders everywhere?
The extent to which scientists should be in the management of society has been debated since the dawn of science itself. Blessed Bensalem Francis Bacon in his 1626 book New Atlantis is a technical theocrat run by a class of scholars and priests who manipulate nature for the benefit of their fellow citizens. The enthusiasm for scholarly-governed technocracies rooted in rationalism blossomed between the two world wars, when H.G. Wells championed their benefits in the form of things to come.
But while post-World War II issues such as nuclear power, communications and environmental degradation have increased the demand for expert technical advice to inform policy, the UK government’s first official scientific advisor, Sully Zuckerman, appointed by Harold Wilson in 1964, stressed the limits of his role. “Only advisory bodies can give advice,” he said. “In our system of government, the decision-making power should be in the hands of the relevant minister or the government as a whole. If scholars want more than this, it is better that they become politicians.”
That is still the prevailing view today: scholars advise, ministers decide. Conservative counterpart David Willetts, former Secretary of State for Universities and Science, says, “The tacit contract is that scholars have a voice, and in return agree that ministers will ultimately decide what to do.” He considers the view (often attributed to Churchill) Saying that “scholars should be in the forefront but not at the top” to be the “correct model in democracy”.
But the equation was not so simple. For one thing, in a democracy, people have a right to know on what basis decisions are made: Scientific advice cannot happen behind closed doors. After the suspicious mad cow crisis in the 1990s, when the Secretary of Agriculture, John Gummer, asserted without scientific justification that British beef was safe to eat (and tried to enlist his reluctant daughter to prove it), a public inquiry concluded that it was vital that the government’s scientific advice be transparent and open, and that Scientific advisors are able to communicate directly with the public so that people can assess whether what the ministers claim is true. Sir David King strongly asserted this right when he advised the Blair government on the FMD epidemic and nuclear power.
It was the initial perceived lack of transparency in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at the start of the Covid crisis that led King to set up Independent Sage as an alternative public-facing source for expert advice. The pandemic has also highlighted the tightrope that top scientific officials like Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance must walk. As civil servants, they have a duty to support the government, and their meticulous accompaniment by ministers at press conferences has raised questions about their independence. When government policy began to deviate markedly from scientific advice during the second wave, the tension was palpable. If the chief medical officer believes that government policy poses a public health risk or reduces risk, where should their loyalty lie?
There is now a strong case to reconsider the limitations of scientific advisors: the top/tap dichotomy fails to acknowledge their broader responsibilities, particularly in the face of irresponsible or incompetent judgement. And while the idea that they refrain from explicit policy recommendations (which include value judgments) makes sense in normal times, Jonathan Birch of the London School of Economics has suggested that there is a way of “criterion-heavy” advice that includes such recommendations—perhaps unconditionally. . (“Do this”) – is justified in crisis situations. “Different standards apply to scientific advisors in extreme cases,” he argues.
Moreover, the “on tap” model assumes the long-held expert view of scientific objectivity about the social roles of science. Sociologist Sheila Jasanov wrote in 1990: “The idea that scientists could tell truth to authority in a value-free manner emerged as a myth.”
For one thing, scholars who join the machinery of government but imagine that they can operate without constraint by political influences are deluding themselves. The landscape of options considered and modeled by Sage is not set by scientific considerations but by political dictates. As Sage member John Edmonds said: “The politicians came [the] The strategy and our job is to make it work” (the strategy here is the ill-fated “controlled herd immunity” scheme). The modelers who predicted the consequences of the full easing of restrictions in July did not compare with the baseline scenario of keeping the remaining restrictions in place, because they were not asked to do so. In the meantime, Whitty and Vallance must have recognized that Dominic Cummings’ violation of the lockdown rules had implications for public trust and compliance; their silence on the matter was not “a departure from politics,” but was itself a political decision.
In its commitment to embracing fallibility and uncertainty, science is the antithesis of the current pattern of politics in which recognition of doubt and error is seen as a weakness. However, it is precisely because of those qualities that science is vulnerable to exploitation for political agendas. When examining US policies on cancer risk, Jasanoff concluded that an aggressive style of regulatory decision-making polarizes scientific opinion and prevents conflict resolution. Far from promoting consensus, she wrote three decades ago, knowledge fed into such a process risks dividing along existing lines of disagreement. We don’t know that now.
This consideration also reveals the fundamental problem with any notion of “the rule of science” – we have to ask: “What science?” When there is a lack of scientific consensus, science risks becoming a tool not to inform but to justify policies. One of the most striking aspects of the denial movements around Covid-19, vaccines and climate change is how “skeptics” position themselves as true rationalists, reviewing carefully curated data to support fringe views. And they can always find “experts” with ostensibly reasonable credentials (including Nobel Prizes) to back them up, just as Johnson was able to convene a panel of shutdown-skeptical scientists to justify his procrastination last fall.
But even well-meaning experts will disagree, not least because different specialist expertise creates different perspectives. The problem is made worse by the persistence of the science hierarchy that distinguishes “hard” disciplines – virology over the social sciences, for example. Technocrats prefer “hard” solutions: Watch how leaders like Hu Jintao in China trained as engineers to search for solutions to the social problems of managing water resources in mega-tech projects. Some say our epidemiological response has been largely driven by “rigorous” epidemiological modeling and lacked adequate input from public health experts.
So choosing an “expert” is very important. Cummings’ enthusiasm for more science-based policy making sounded so good that I realized his tendency to survey carefully selected “geniuses” (sometimes mavericks). His reliance on mathematician Tim Gowers to find out why herd immunity policy in early 2020 was “catastrophically wrong” was arbitrary and opaque to scrutinize. Gowers happens to be very smart (and he was right), but plenty of experts in public health and epidemiology were already screaming in the void about that faulty plan.
In the end, we rightly elect politicians to make decisions and judgments, not just to enact what experts or data seem to dictate. As the sociologist Harry Collins and Robert Evans said: “Democracy cannot dominate every field – it destroys experience – and experience cannot dominate every field – it destroys democracy.” As a scientist, I don’t want to see scientists at the top or watching his movements. Mature leaders, regardless of their training, who respect science for what it is — a social system for accessing reliable but contingent knowledge, based on data, embracing error, uncertainty, and diversity of opinions — will not struggle to put it to good use. All we have to do is choose them.