October 15, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Science, politics and integrity
On 12 October three things appeared in my Twitter timeline: a report, an academic paper and an interview, all dealing with science and politics in the context of the management of the coronavirus pandemic. Most importantly, there was the House of Commons report which showed for all to see what a shambles the UK government’s response to the pandemic had been. Newspapers all over Britain reported this as evidence for the worst public health failure in UK history.
Then there was a detailed and damning dissection, what some called an ‘autopsy’, of the UK’s pandemic management by Philip Ball for a special issue on the pandemic for a Royal Society journal (which links up with an earlier article here). And finally there was an interview with the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government, Sir Patrick Vallance, which, unfortunately, was rather insipid. It should be stressed that this interview was recorded before the publication of the HoC report.
What to do in a pandemic
The interview contained some snippets of information that were quite interesting. The first was that Sir Patrick found it difficult to convey the importance of an exponential curve to politicians; the second was that he always tried to make politicians understand the aspects of the science he used in his advice; and, most importantly, the third was that his own ‘mantra’ for pandemic management was: ‘go sooner than you want to, go harder than you want to, go more geographically broad than you want to’ (31 minutes into the interview).
He also said that the Prime Minister knows about this mantra, which was interesting, as this mantra was obviously not used to guide the PM’s early pandemic decision making. Rather than going hard and fast, the focus was on going slowly but precisely – the mantra was ‘flattening the curve‘. I am not sure why that mantra was adopted and agreed upon rather than Sir Patrick’s personal favourite.
What not to do in a pandemic
One thing is clear. The mismanagement of the crisis was there for all to see well before the HoC report and well before the much delayed first lockdown. I normally wouldn’t refer you to a video by Led by Donkeys in an academic blog, but, ok, I do, as it summarises what went on before our very eyes quite clearly and most of you will remember this quite well.
What to do in a pandemic
Most of you will also remember that many people, themselves and others, started to act responsibly well before the government did and even despite what the government said, both in terms of social distancing and in terms of mask wearing. As Susan Michie pointed out in an interview: “”People were by and large ahead of the government in terms of the extent to which they were prepared to engage with restrictions, with protective behaviours, when they saw there was a threat, and what they could do would make a difference.”
Instead of making assumptions about what people might or might not do, e.g. getting tired of restrictions, and apportioning blame, scientists and politicians should perhaps have listened to what people were doing – and supported them in their actions, as proposed by John Drury and Stephen Reicher for example. They should also have had more trust in people, as explained in an article by Michael Bang Petersen, also published on 12 October. As Petersen points out: “Denmark pivoted to a strategy of trusting its citizens with hard truths”, and that has worked out rather well.
Doing the right thing in a pandemic
When a pandemic strikes, relying on science is necessary but not sufficient. It’s important to be able to rely on people – and give them reliable information on the basis of which they are enabled to act for the common good. (And vice versa: It’s necessary for people to be able to rely on their government)
It’s also important to look around at what other countries and other people are doing, or what other people did in the past, and to see what works and what doesn’t. That’s what learning is all about. But that didn’t happen in UK government, even from one pandemic wave to the other!
Doing the right thing can be informed by formal scientific advice but does not depend on it. For the right thing to be done two things need to happen, in my view, something that became clear to me after watching an interview with Rory Stewart.
First of all, politicians have to want to do the right thing, which is a precondition for everything that follows. It it would also be great if they were at least slightly interested in the science that might inform their ‘doing the right thing’ decision making. This means interrogating, indeed challenging, the scientists, trying to understand them, and also questioning them when things seem a bit iffy, or, as Tom Chivers has shown, when scientists seem somewhat over-confident in a radically uncertain situation.
And vice versa: Scientists should be allowed to (and have the courage to) question politicians and ask them about the grounds for their decision making, which of course can be based on other than scientific reasons, but reasons that the scientific advisors might want to understand and, if needs be, challenge. All this should be a dialogue based on mutual respect, integrity and humility in the face of an unprecedented situation. Ideally!
Following the science in a pandemic
Only in such a context can responsible scientific advice work. Interestingly, when looking at other countries, one can see that it really can, at least to some extent – look at Germany, New Zealand, Denmark and perhaps, at the moment, most clearly Norway.
While reading tweets on these recent science/policy revelations and discussions, I came across one tweet by Ida Skibenes which said: “Life is pretty much back to normal here in Norway. And we have no mask mandates, no vaccine mandate, no mandated social distancing. It’s amazing how much freedom you get when you just listen to and follow the science.”
‘Following the science’….This can work in a context where scientists and politicians are respected and have earned that respect because they behave responsibly and decently.
As Trisha Greenhalgh said in a tweet: “… We need a major re-think about the science-policy relationship. ‘Following the science’ (= advice of your hand-picked few) is not a good strategy, nor is it an adequate defence for moral failings.”
To my mind, the issue here is not the science but the ‘moral failings’. Science and politics can only work together successfully in a context imbued with morality, courage and integrity; not only scientific integrity but also political integrity – that’s the crux.
As Philip Ball said in his insightful article on this matter: “Mature leaders, irrespective of their training, who respect science for what it is – a social system for arriving at reliable but contingent knowledge, based on data, embracing error and uncertainty and diversity of opinion – will not struggle to put it to good use. All we need to do is elect them.” But how do we do that in a world struggling with misinformation, deception and polarisation? That is the question.