Keep scientists in the research space and out of politics

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Matt Hancock’s views on the independent experts advising the government detailed in the lockdown files are revealing. They were “completely unreliable” and “crazy” (Dame Kate Bingham); a “completely off the hook… loudmouth” (Sir Jeremy Farrar); and a “price jerk” (Prof. Jon Deeks); while Prof Sharon Peacock, the amazing scientist who founded the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), was seen as “a total outrage” for not warning him months earlier that the alpha variants were coming (which exposed Hancock’s misunderstanding of the work of these genome sequencers). Nor was it just Hancock who seemed to find these pesky scientists annoying. When asked to deal with Farrar, one of Hancock’s special advisers replied: “What is your question? Get rid of or neutralize?”

Now, I’m not averse to even a bit of mature language, and I’m aware that these messages should be private. But they reinforce my belief that science and politics are at their best when bathed in the clear blue waters of separation. We need scientific advice for government in times of crisis and I think Sage has done that very well. But when science seeps into politics through government communications, it becomes problematic.

One of the problems is that politicians and their media advisers tend to view scientific experts who are brought in to advise the government in the same way as politicians. In her book on the pandemic, Kate Bingham, the independent life sciences expert who was brought in to lead the vaccine task force, described a confrontation with Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s communications director, who stopped her from conducting media interviews on a paper she had published in Die lancet, a scholarly journal. When Bingham challenged the decision, Cain said it was not okay that she was getting more media coverage than some ministers, demonstrating that the public interest in hearing from the best scientists was lagging behind the government’s media strategy.

Science must be divorced from political bias to serve its purpose

The other element is a deep-seated desire among politicians and their media advisers to control the narrative. I recently spoke to Mathew Taylor about this on his podcast. He readily admitted that when he was Tony Blair’s chief strategy adviser, any independent scientists who strayed into their purview were drawn into their media management. I accept that this is often driven by a genuine desire to ensure the public receives a single clear public health message. But it’s also about messaging that will deliver the popular vote at the next election. These are perfectly reasonable communication goals for politicians, but on both counts they don’t sit well with science. The science is messy, uncertain, incomplete and controversial – rarely amenable to the simple message favored by government communications. As an endeavor based on the objective and impartial examination of the evidence, science must be divorced from political bias in order to fulfill its purpose.

Of course there is a reward here. If we ask governments to relax and let scientists be scientists, scientists should also have an obligation to advise governments not to get too involved in politics or to demand specific measures. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance regularly advocated that scientists advise and politicians decide. But I’m not sure if it was ever fully understood by the public and policy makers or unfortunately by some scientists. I’d like to think that one lesson we could all agree on is that going forward, the public should have more clarity about who is providing the evidence, who is providing the advice, and who is making the policy.

There’s a bit on the WhatsApps where Hancock is angry that Farrar showed up Sky news without seeking permission from government communications: “He has to be either in the tent and on the side, or outside and commenting.” Fortunately for us all, the government’s chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser encouraged Sage’s independent academics to work with the media to talk about their science. The scientists advising the government are among the country’s best experts on this crisis. “Neutralizing” them or giving them a choice, advising the government or sharing their science with the general public was not in the public interest and fortunately did not happen. In fact, great scientists who regularly explain complex and uncertain science to Britain’s great science writers have almost certainly saved many lives.

My hero of the lockdown files is Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Head of MI5 and Chair of the Wellcome Trust. Although she was warned that she was “wild” and would likely view a call from a politician asking her to tell the director of Wellcome to shut up as unacceptable interference with independence, Health Secretary James Bethell took the lead. He later told Hancock of his failure: “She defended his right to say what he wants.” Now there is a woman who clearly sees where the lines are drawn.

We all need to see the scientific evidence and advice, but we also need to see where this ends and policy decisions begin. Giving politicians and their media advisors the responsibility to communicate both doesn’t work. Before the next crisis, let’s find a better way.

• Fiona Fox is executive director of the Science Media Center

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