How (not) to do science in a crisis

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The writer is a science commentator

Who needs Succession when the UK Covid inquiry is on YouTube? The real-life rollercoaster drama, which began public hearings in June, has been lifting the veil on how decisions were made in the UK during the pandemic.

The storyline, shaped in recent weeks by the testimony of civil servants and scientific advisers, veers between the farcical and the macabre. At the centre of the decision-making web lay an indecisive and “bamboozled” prime minister who struggled with numbers, according to diaries kept by his chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance. 

Surrounding him, one female civil servant testified, were ego-driven misogynists with a collective “absence of humanity”. These accomplices included a health secretary keen to decide which citizens would live or die; and a chancellor nicknamed Dr Death for his resistance to infection-curbing measures. In a twist that Succession creator Jesse Armstrong might applaud, Dr Death, aka Rishi Sunak, is now prime minister, and Dame Angela McLean, the scientist who coined the nickname, is his chief scientific adviser.  

Cathartic though the hearings have been, the real value of this public inquiry is to improve decision-making in future crises. Given that our era will be defined by scientific and technological challenges, such as the climate emergency and AI, one legacy is essential: this must be the last generation of politicians that cannot get its head around science. The continued existence in government of two apparently unbridgeable cultures of science and the humanities — epitomised by a former prime minister able to write a Shakespeare biography in his spare time but not grasp percentages and probabilities when lives depended on it — should be regarded as a mark of shame, not a badge of honour.

As Vallance has conceded, advisers must have a clear remit and do better at communicating science, as well as policy options, to ministers. But this dialogue requires expertise that is lacking, both among politicians and in the civil service. In 2018, just one in ten civil service fast-track recruits had a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (Stem) background; the target is now 50 per cent. We need public servants who can identify, analyse and interpret relevant data — and commission it if it is missing.

They must be able to confidently evaluate policies aimed at delivering the government’s strategy, once ministers have clearly set out their strategic objectives, and feel comfortable explaining mathematical concepts such as exponential rise. If the number of infections doubles or triples every week, it means a decision delayed is usually an outcome drastically worsened. Ministers should not slavishly “follow the science” but try to understand the evidence, and publicly own their decisions.

Graphs, which plot one variable against another, can be another sticking point in the advice transfer chain. Last week, McLean showed the inquiry a graph she had sketched early in the pandemic, plotting the number of infections against time, to guess when hospitals might be overrun. The graph, she reflected ruefully, had failed to move ministers. In reality, data visualisation permits policies to reveal themselves. Epidemiologist John Snow’s iconic “dot map” of cholera cases in 1850s Soho unmasked a shared water pump at the centre of the mystery — and an obvious route to ending the outbreak.

Managing a modern crisis will rarely be as simple as shutting down a water pump. It may require trade-offs. Tackling Covid went beyond the remit of the UK Health Security Agency, given the apparent tension between saving the nation’s health and protecting the economy. But where was the economic advice — and what was the evidence that health and wealth were mutually exclusive?

Empirical observation — a scientific way of saying “looking around” — suggests countries that controlled infections fared relatively well economically. Could, say, a UK policy of statutory sick pay have allowed more of the economy to remain open, by encouraging the infected to stay at home? We will need a framework for future crises which looks at these options through a broader lens, informed by health, economic and security considerations.

As the inquiry shows, it is hard to make good policy on the hoof but science is meant to help. It is a way of thinking open to the curious, not a boxful of unchanging truths only for the initiated. It poses questions, challenges assumptions and allows knowledge to evolve. It gave us pandemic vaccines and drugs.

In a crisis, science is an ally, not the enemy.

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