Science and political leadership

29 June 2020

Those making key decisions should have the scientific competence to chart a reasonable and sensible route forward

Max Falkenberg

On 14 March, more than a week before the start of the lockdown in the UK, an open letter from scientists was published stating that a failure to lock down immediately would “risk many more lives than necessary”. At the time the letter was (incorrectly) ridiculed for involving “no leading experts in the science of the spread of diseases,” a statement later retracted by the BBC, but not before other media outlets condemned the scientists for trying to politicise the pandemic.

The scientists in question were largely (but not exclusively) from the field of ‘complexity science’ – mathematicians and physicists who are specialised in the analysis of cross-disciplinary problems involving many interacting parts, including in epidemiology. Six days after the open letter, Greg Clark, the Chair of the UK House of Commons’ Science and Technology select committee, stated that the Government was “distilling [the] best science,” yet somehow a science not in tune with the open letter, nor with the science that was starting to set government agendas across mainland Europe.

‘Following the science’ is not easy, and when said by itself without context of substance, is an essentially meaningless phrase. In the 20th century, the problems facing scientists were hard, but it was usually clear which verifiable predictions a theory could make about the real world. For years scientists might try to master space flight, but at the end of the day, they could tell whether the correct path had been taken because either your rocket landed on the moon, or it didn’t.

Since the turn of the century, this has been changing, with scientists becoming increasingly interested in the murky and imprecise world of complex systems. Here, there are no clearly defined paths and no obvious end goals. Complexity science is about understanding the generalities associated with emergent phenomena – how the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A complexity scientist might be interested in understanding how qualitatively, the spread of a pandemic is not unlike the spread of misinformation, or how, when the details are stripped away, the firing of neurons in the brain tend to behave just like Earthquakes.

Without a doubt, the Covid19 pandemic is a complex system. How the virus spreads is a question for epidemiologists, the impact on economies is a question for economists, how it kills is a question for doctors, and how it will (presumably) end is a question for vaccinologists. Traditionally, these problems may have been tackled in a vacuum, but it is precisely because each branch of the tree is part of a larger whole that experts and policy-makers can’t compartmentalise their responses.

In academia these interdependencies might interest complexity scientists, but in practice, the interplay of these fields is managed by politicians. Politicians in China decided when to notify the WHO of the onset of COVID19. Politicians decided which borders to close and when. Politicians decided on the eligibility of citizens for furlough schemes, and if and when we develop a vaccine, politicians will decide who, and in what order, individuals will be vaccinated.

The problem for politicians when tackling such a complex system is that they may well want to ‘follow the science’, but the science is usually not self-evident or unambiguous. When the media demands that the science be followed, the media implicitly assume that the evidence available to politicians and their scientific advisors offers a clear guide for how to proceed. But such assumptions rarely reflect reality, and, I suspect, totally underestimate how difficult it is for scientific advisors to “distil the best science”. Different scientists will provide different perspectives and recommendations. Some will carry authority, like those who brand themselves as epidemiologists, but the opinion of others, like the signatories of the open letter, may be marginalised by the untrained eye. Understanding how to collate diverse opinions in a coherent manner is far from straightforward, and only becomes more difficult if the advice has to be presented in a manner that is accessible to the lay-person.

At this stage in the pandemic, it appears that those calling for an immediate and strict lockdown in mid-March probably reached the correct conclusion, but how we will be affected by the longer-term impacts of lockdown and the pandemic is still largely unknown. We do not yet know how the mental health impact of lockdown will play out for example, or how the cancellation of surgeries will effect individuals with long-term medical conditions. How to give advice in such complex situations requires an understanding of the whole problem, not just its individual parts.

Last January, Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government spoke in a rare interview of the need for more scientists in Whitehall, noting the failure of the civil service to recruit STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, which made up only 40 of the 400 candidates accepted to the civil service fast stream in 2017. In the interview, Vallance acknowledged that in many government departments, scientists are not involved in the decision-making process at all, possibly because problems aren’t believed to have scientific relevance. Perhaps in isolated cases that is true, but if COVID19 has taught us anything it is how a few scientific decisions can make an impact on almost every aspect of our lives.

At the conclusion of the interview, Vallance states that if ‘science impacts every part of our lives, [then] scientists should be there at the table, all the time’. While I absolutely agree, for me, Vallance misses the crucial point. If we are to address the lack of scientific competence in government, it needs to start at the very top with decision-makers, and not just at the advisory level.

Increasing the number of scientists in Whitehall will not improve the leadership’s ability to ‘follow the science’, but with scientists within leadership, we may reach a stage where the public can be confident that decisions concerning our lives are made based on a sound understanding of the available evidence. In the current Conservative cabinet, only four of the 26 members around the table have STEM degrees, and in the shadow cabinet only two. None of the big four cabinet positions on either side of the aisle have scientific backgrounds, and of the remainder, only Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has actively practiced as a scientist during her PhD.

Critics may argue that this is precisely why advisory groups like SAGE (the government’s Scientific Advisor Group for Emergencies) exist – so as to ensure that government is informed by the very best scientific advice. But who is chosen to give such advice, how it is given, and how it is received very much depends on the technical competence and priorities of those involved. The inclusion of Ben Warner on SAGE, the Vote Leave data scientist, certainly suggests that the route to inclusion in such committees is not wholly meritocratic, and that advice is not necessarily impartial.

Such issues also apply to the left, where during the government of Gordon Brown (2007-2010), the drugs advisor David Nutt was dismissed for his comments on the safety of recreational drugs. In such situations, it is not implausible to believe that the advice given to policy-makers may well be shaped by what is believed to be politically palatable.

In the early stages of COVID19, where Boris Johnson skipped five COBRA[1] meetings on the pandemic, swift and severe strategies may have been more appealing to the leadership than longer and more drawn out approaches. Simply suggesting that there is no basis for such strategies in science is untrue. Writing this in June, ‘herd immunity’ is now widely seen as morally repugnant. But if the evidence suggests the pandemic cannot be suppressed, and since operations within the NHS have been cancelled anyway, then for the benefit of mental health and the country’s economy, ending the pandemic as quickly as possible may be the best approach. Obviously, there are numerous downsides to such a strategy; this should not be read as a defence of herd immunity. However, it illustrates that it is not difficult to offer the lay-person a persuasive, scientific argument for an approach later deemed unacceptable.

If the scientific competence of decision-makers is lacking, advice may be relayed through political advisors, like Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief advisor, rather than directly to the leadership. I actually think that may be a good thing – better an interested advisor than a disinterested leader, but even better would be leadership with the ability to understand scientific nuance and to reach evidence-based decisions. In the US, organisations such as 314 Action advocate for the election of practicing scientists to public office, noting their trust with the general public and their role in promoting evidence-based policy. The organisation has trained over 1500 potential candidates from scientific backgrounds and at the 2018 midterm elections the group supported eight winning Democrats. In the UK, no such organisation exists, but maybe it should.

The COVID19 pandemic has shaken-up almost every aspect of our daily lives. There is no one clear way forward, and decisions will have to be made based on murky scientific evidence and polarising political priorities. Inevitably, some countries will handle this better than others. Involving more scientists in the process from as diverse a range of backgrounds as possible, and with an appreciation of the interdependencies inherent in COVID19, is likely to improve the chances of a desirable outcome.

In sum, as long as we, the public, are not privy to how the decisions around COVID19 are made, it would certainly make me sleep better at night knowing that those making key decisions have the scientific competence to chart a reasonable and sensible route forward.

[1] COBRA stands for the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and refers to the emergency council which is formed when a crisis arises in the UK to oversee the work of various different government departments.