Please follow the science (but not too much!)

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Health, UK politics

James Georgalakis is Director of Communications and Impact at the Institute for Development Studies, and is a Doctoral Candidate on the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research (IPR) Professional Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice

Recently we heard that UK politicians insufficiently challenged the Covid-19 scientific advice coming from our Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). However, we were also told that they can’t deal with complexity and may have misunderstood the advice.

Some of this clearly reflects the tensions between political expediency and scientific integrity. However, to fully appreciate the role of scientists in generating policy options during periods of extreme uncertainty we also need to look at the tensions within scientific communities themselves.

Scientific consensus or uncertainty?

report from the UK Parliament’s Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees, suggests politicians were too wedded to SAGE’s ‘fatalistic’ advice during the early stages of the pandemic and as a result waited too long to instigate full lockdown and social distancing measures. It is claimed that policy actors felt unable to challenge a ‘scientific consensus’ based largely on an anticipated pandemic flu and not a novel coronavirus. However, within hours of the report’s release, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Governments Chief Scientific Advisor, was explaining on the BBC that the real trouble was science is about uncertainty and politicians struggle with that because they (not the scientists) have to make difficult life or death decisions.

An earlier study by Paul Cairney, of the Government’s initial response, confirms that they did indeed follow the science. However, he points out that they followed “their science”. There was no consensus and the divergence between those inclined to let the virus run its course and minimise its impact on the vulnerable, versus those who believed it could be eliminated, became increasingly clear during this period. Most notably, the Great Barrington Declaration promoted the easing of lockdown measures whilst a self-styled Independent SAGE broadcast its recommendations on social media for total elimination of the virus.

The blame game

Politicians and political advisors, including former Secretary of State Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings, claim they were misled by the science. They conveniently failed to mention in their evidence to the select committees that they were being lobbied by prominent scientists, both on and off SAGE, about the urgent need for testing and strict lockdowns due to asymptomatic transmission. The most appealing narrative certainly seems to be that the fault lies with politicians, who were unable to cope intellectually or politically with uncertainty.

However, even robust research can be contested and does not necessarily produce politically viable policy options. Environmental and climate scientists have long known what this feels like. We should expect our politicians to handle complexity a bit better next time (and there will be a next time). This implicates our media also, who perhaps due to British exceptionalism, also struggled to grasp in February 2020 that the big story was our own preparedness and not containment. And we should ask scientists, in times of crisis and uncertainty, to be a little more cognisant of the challenges faced by decision-makers.

Scientific consciousness and ways of knowing

My own research interests relate to the interactions between scientists themselves, rather than between political elites and science advisors. At a systems level these may largely hinge on their epistemologies (ways of knowing things). Popular perceptions of scientists as explorers and questioners, even mavericks, as opposed to critical empiricists, committed to facts that can be measured, may seem contradictory. Nonetheless, both these ways of knowing things co-exist. During pandemics we need both the science of the lived experiences of communities, stories of success and common sense (however you define it) and science that deals in theories, clinical trials and laboratory experiments.

The French philosopher Foucault describes this epistemological level of knowledge as ‘scientific consciousness’. What politicians may have come up against in those early weeks of the crisis was not so much divergence between disciplines (say epidemiologists versus behavioural scientists) than between epistemologies. Face mask use in the community is a good example of this. SAGE and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), initially concluded there was a lack of evidence to support mandatory mask wearing. However, others argued it urgently needed to be adopted as a precautionary measure and were concerned we were not learning lessons from the Asian response. This is evidence-based medicine versus a socially aware form of pragmatism.

Science as a social institution

It has long been argued in the sociology of science that trust and alignment within academic networks can only be shaped partially (if at all) by scientific knowledge. The collapse of scientific certitude, or as Lorraine Daston describes it: ‘ground zero empiricism,’ has been felt keenly around the initial European response to Covid-19. Whether it is arguments about the virus being airborne or debates over the efficacy of regional lockdowns, the political mantra of following the science can ring empty when the science appears contested. Science is itself a social institution and scientific consciousness may be related to a whole range of socio-cultural factors.

Exercising epistemic humility

This matters because it highlights that we may sometimes over-simplify the relationship between science and policy and get too caught up in the blame game between experts and politicians. Some policy actors may have been too quick to support some science advice over counter narratives but it was a hugely difficult period. The introduction of mandatory face mask use in the community in July 2020 is one example of the outsider scientific narrative winning in the end. However, in all of this we also need scientists to exercise some epistemic humility. Not every public health expert angry with the initial response to Covid knew with any certainty what the right thing to do was. They may have just felt left out of SAGE or belonged to a different epistemic tribe. Meanwhile, many serving on SAGE sub-committees were just doing their best under difficult circumstances and did not feel they were having much influence on policy anyway.

Birds of a feather flock together

I am currently trying to map epistemic alignment in scientific and public health communities in England during the first wave. Anonymised survey data records links between respondents and I use social network analysis software to look at how network level behaviours, such as network homophily (birds of a feather…), may have shaped these connections. For example, if a respondent shares similar attributes with another person, such as not being a member of SAGE, were they more likely to support their position on face mask wearing in the community? Do prominent individuals (those nominated multiple times) tend to be aligned with different groups in the network depending on their insider and outsider status? Are people who were working quietly with government, largely absent from the media and, as Cairney puts it, “playing by the rules,” connected to those with more sympathy for the initial policy response?

These are important questions to answer as we continue to try and unpick what really happens when science and policy communities get thrown together during a crisis. In the meantime, the best advice we seem to be able to give policymakers is follow the science but not too much.

This blog was originally posted via the Institute for Development Studies on 14 October 2021. All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: COVID-19, Evidence and policymaking, Health, UK politics


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