Covid has put academics like Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance at the heart of government, but smart politicians are essential too
Last modified on Mon 27 Sep 2021 15.28 BST
How many lives would have been saved in the pandemic if the UK government had truly “followed the science”? The question is unanswerable but hardly academic. We cannot accurately quantify how many lives were lost by the politically driven delays to lockdown in the first and second waves, but the number is not small.
So would we have done better simply to put scientists in charge of pandemic policy? Might we hand over climate change policy to them, too? In fact, would their evidence-based methods make them better leaders all round?
How much say scientists should have in running society has been debated since the dawn of science itself. Francis Bacon’s utopian Bensalem in his 1626 book New Atlantis is a techno-theocracy run by a caste of scientist-priests who manipulate nature for the benefit of their citizens. Enthusiasm for technocracies governed by scientists and rooted in rationalism flourished between the world wars, when HG Wells advocated their benefits in The Shape of Things to Come.
But while post-second world war issues such as nuclear power, telecommunications and environmental degradation heightened the demand for expert technical advice to inform policies, the UK government’s first official scientific adviser, Solly Zuckerman, appointed in 1964 by Harold Wilson, stressed the limits of his role. “Advisory bodies can only advise,” he said. “In our system of government, the power of decision must rest with the minister concerned or with the government as a whole. If scientists want more than this then they’d better become politicians.”
That remains the common view today: scientists advise, ministers decide. “The implicit contract,” says the Conservative peer David Willetts, a former minister of state for universities and science, “is that the scientists get to have their voice heard, and in return they accept that ministers will ultimately decide on what should be done.” He considers the view (often credited to Churchill) that “scientists should be on tap but not on top” to be “the right model in a democracy”.
But the equation was never that simple. For one thing, in a democracy people have a right to know on what basis decisions are being made: scientific advice can’t happen behind closed doors. After the shambolic BSE crisis of the 1990s, when the minister 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 is vital that science advice to government be transparent and open, and that scientific advisers be able to communicate directly with the public so that people could assess whether what ministers claimed was true. That right was vigorously asserted by Sir David King when he advised the Blair government on the foot-and-mouth epidemic and on nuclear power.
It was a perceived initial lack of transparency in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at the start of the Covid crisis that led King to establish Independent Sage as an alternative, public-facing source of expert advice. The pandemic has also highlighted the tightrope that chief scientific officers such as Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance must walk. As civil servants, they are duty bound to support the government, and their careful chaperoning by ministers at press briefings led to questions about their independence. When government policy began to diverge markedly from scientific advice during the second wave, the tension was palpable. If a chief medical officer believes that a government policy poses a public health hazard or is downplaying dangers, then where should their allegiance lie?
There is now a strong case for reconsidering the constraints placed on scientific advisers: the top/tap dichotomy fails to acknowledge their broader responsibilities, especially in the face of irresponsible or incompetent governance. 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 proposed that a mode of “normatively heavy” advice that does include such recommendations – perhaps unconditionally (“Do this”) – is warranted in crisis situations. “Different norms apply to scientific advisers in extremis,” he argues.
What’s more, the “on tap” model assumes a view of scientific objectivity that has long since been exploded by experts on the social roles of science. “The idea that scientists can speak truth to power in a value-free manner has emerged as a myth,” wrote the social scientist Sheila Jasanoff in 1990.
For one thing, scientists who join the mechanism of government but imagine they can operate untrammelled by political influences are fooling themselves. The landscape of options considered and modelled by Sage was set not by scientific considerations but by political diktat. As Sage member John Edmunds has said: “The politicians came up with [the] strategy and our job was to make it work” (the strategy here being the fateful “controlled herd immunity” scheme). And modellers predicting the consequences of the full relaxation of restrictions in July did not compare against the baseline scenario of keeping remaining restrictions in place, because they were not asked to do so. Whitty and Vallance must, meanwhile, have recognised that Dominic Cummings’s violation of lockdown rules had implications for public trust and compliance; their silence on the matter was not “staying out of politics”, but itself a political decision.
In its obligation to embrace fallibility and uncertainty, science is antithetical to the current mode of politics in which admissions of doubt and error are regarded as weakness. Yet it is precisely because of those attributes that science is vulnerable to exploitation for political agendas. Studying US policies on cancer risks, Jasanoff concluded that the adversarial style of regulatory decision-making polarises scientific opinion and prevents the resolution of disputes. “Far from promoting consensus, knowledge fed into such a process risks being fractured along existing lines of discord,” she wrote three decades ago. Don’t we know it now.
That consideration exposes, too, the fundamental problem with any notion of “rule by science” – we have to ask: “Which science?” Where there is lack of scientific consensus, science risks becoming a tool not for informing but for justifying policies. One of the most striking aspects of the denialist movements around Covid-19, vaccines and climate change is how “sceptics” position themselves as the true rationalists, parading cherrypicked data in support of fringe views. And they can always find “experts” with superficially plausible qualifications (including Nobel prizes) to support them, just as Johnson could convene a panel of lockdown-sceptic scientists to justify his procrastination last autumn.
But even good-faith experts will disagree, not least because different disciplinary expertise creates different perspectives. The problem is rendered worse by the persistent hierarchy of the sciences that privileges the “hard” disciplines – virology over social sciences, say. Technocrats prefer “hard” fixes: witness how in China, leaders such as Hu Jintao trained as engineers to seek solutions to social problems of water resource management in gargantuan techno-projects. Some say our pandemic response was too much led by “hard” epidemiological modelling and lacked adequate input from public health experts.
So the choice of “expert” matters hugely. Cummings’s enthusiasm for more science-based policymaking sounded all very well until you recognised his tendency to capriciously anoint handpicked “geniuses” (sometimes mavericks). His reliance on the mathematician Tim Gowers to see why the herd immunity policy in early 2020 was “catastrophically wrong” was arbitrary and opaque to scrutiny. Gowers happens to be very smart (and was right), but plenty of experts in public health and epidemiology were already screaming into the void about that mistaken plan.
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In the end, we rightly elect politicians to make decisions and judgments, and not simply to enact what experts or data seem to dictate. As the sociologists Harry Collins and Robert Evans have put it: “Democracy cannot dominate every domain – that would destroy expertise – and expertise cannot dominate every domain – that would destroy democracy.” As a scientist, I don’t want to see scientists on top or on tap. 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.